Henry Purcell

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2009 marked the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth and there were concerts across the country filled with his music, celebratory broadcasts on Radio 3, concerts in Westminster Abbey, The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne and Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House. Since then, Purcell’s music seems to have disappeared from our concert halls and opera houses. Why is he not performed more often today?

It largely comes down to a question of style. He belongs to the generation before Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann: his music is not high Baroque but retains many aspects of Renaissance modal counterpoint. He emulated the prevailing French and Italian styles of Lully and Corelli when it suited him, but always retained a distinctive Englishness in the folk-like quality of his best tunes and a seriousness, bordering on sadness, which pervades much of his music. He was also unfortunate to have pumped his best music into plays and so-called semi-operas, which are not realisable today as originally intended. Further impeding universal popularity, Purcell did not write any all-purpose ceremonial music (like Handel), or flamboyantly virtuoso music (like Vivaldi).

Then there is the virtual absence of the man himself – only a few scant biographical details and no sharply defined character on which to hang a huge and diverse output. Any Purcell biographer has to fill out the story with social and political history, so few are the hard facts documenting his brief 36-year existence. He certainly lived in exciting times, so much so that no-one bothered to write much about a mere musical genius.

Purcell was born into a family of court musicians the year before Charles II was invited to restore the monarchy. The Restoration was a time of new theatres, a new court orchestra and a new Chapel Royal with the brightest crop of new boys ever known: John Blow, Pelham Humfrey, Michael Wise and Purcell. Their teacher was the kindly Captain Cooke and, outside the Chapel, Purcell came under the influence of the worldly and slightly mad Matthew Locke who introduced him to the delights of the theatre and prepared him for the realities of working as a musician in London.

Purcell’s talents were recognised early and he was appointed Organist of Westminster Abbey at the age of 20. In the 1680s, when he was spectacularly realising his early promise, the pattern of his work was composing anthems and service music for the Abbey and the Chapel Royal. Altogether more extrovert were the one-off odes, royal welcome and birthday songs. When off duty, he studied the old consort music of Byrd and Gibbons and wrote a collection of the finest of all viol fantasias for private performance and, one assumes, his own edification. He also ventured into print with a set of Italianate sonatas for two violins and bass.

For a composer who wrote in every genre known in England at the time, there is nevertheless a thread which runs throughout Purcell’s career: the song. He was a master of setting English words to music, a genius recognised during his lifetime and which continues to be acknowledged by those who have grappled with the difficulties of setting the language, from Britten and Tippett to Birtwistle and Adès. Purcell perfectly preserved natural speech patterns, even when the music is highly decorated.

His songs can be divided into two categories. There are the simple, strophic pieces that could be mistaken for folksongs, such as ‘Lads and lasses’ from Don Quixote. Second, there are the so-called declamatory songs, often very long pieces in several sections, in which Purcell uses ‘madrigalisms’; that is, distinctive musical figures to depict important words, especially those describing movement or emotion. ‘From rosy bowers’, his last song, and ‘Tell me, some pitying angel’ (‘The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation’) are perhaps the finest examples.

With the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, the exile of James II and the arrival of William and Mary, Purcell’s career became richer and more diverse. The Chapel Royal had suffered less than one might expect under the Roman Catholic regime, but Queen Mary breathed new life into the arts, becoming a patron like no other Purcell ever knew. The odes he wrote for her birthdays include some of his best music.

From 1690, when he was 31 years old, until the day he died, Purcell produced a huge amount of music of the highest quality. All his major stage works fall within this time, as do the Queen Mary odes, Hail, bright Cecilia, the huge collection of hymns and religious dialogues called Harmonia sacra, the theatre suites and a flood of individual vocal pieces for all occasions, collected and published posthumously as Orpheus Britannicus, the alpha and omega of English song.

The largest of the works from this final period are the semi-operas Dioclesian, King Arthur, The Fairy Queen and The Indian Queen. These are elaborately staged plays with extensive incidental music, masques, pageants and ballet sequences. Though featuring some great music, they are rarely revived. Unlike later dialogue operas, such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio, the main characters in Purcell’s semi-operas do not sing. Another problem is that the play texts – even Dryden’s King Arthur – are not really viable enough as dramatic vehicles to hold the stage today.

Luckily, what may be lacking in the semi-operas is more than made up for by Dido and Aeneas. Closely following Virgil, Purcell and his librettist have Aeneas abandon his lover Dido to fulfill divine destiny. But they also twist the story to make Dido the victim of a witches’ plot and turn Aeneas from a hero to a weakling who promises to stay at Carthage but then slinks away. If there was ever a reason as to why Purcell should not be forgotten, it is to be found in the concise and poignant expressions of Dido – a true, epic opera reduced to the human level. 

Curtis Price