Henry Purcell

Composer Henry Purcell

One of the most revered English Baroque composers, he merged French, Italian, and native elements in his music.

Vital Statistics
Circa 1659, in Westminster, London
November 21, 1695, in Westminster, London
Performed As:
Harpsichordist, organist, and (as a young man) singer
During Lifetime:
Restoration of the English monarchy, and of the Stuart court, including the reigns of Charles II and James II, and the joint rule of William and Mary. At this time, Parliament retains an important legislative role, the Bill of Rights is confirmed, and Catholics are barred from the English throne.
Biographical Outline
  • Heritage: Purcell is raised by his uncle, Thomas Purcell, after his father’s death in 1664. Both the elder Purcells were important musicians and members of the Chapel Royal,  the institution where Henry is trained and later employed for the rest of his life. Purcell’s brother Daniel, as well as his son and grandson, serve in similar positions.
  • First gig, 1673: Assistant to John Higeston, keeper of the King’s instruments. Purcell kept this position, which involved tuning keyboard instruments and looking after other ones, throughout his life. In 1677, Purcell replaces Matthew Locke as composer to the King’s Violins, on his 18th birthday.
  • Settled in: Purcell is appointed organist at Westminster Abbey in 1679, and holds this prestigious post till his death.
  • Compositions for the court: Purcell composes odes, anthems, and secular songs for the court and Westminster Abbey until the late 1680s.
  • Works for theater: During the tumultuous years in the reign of James II, Purcell turns to the theater, for which he produces his most famous works: The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, and Dido and Aeneas.
  • Top teacher, 1680s-90s: Purcell is much in demand as a teacher. He also edits and contributes to publisher John Playford’s famous collection Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1694), thus solidifying his own reputation as a teacher.
  • Double funeral, 1695: Purcell provides music for Queen Mary’s funeral. A short time later, the same music is used for his own funeral.
Fun Facts
  • Mysteries: The precise date of Purcell’s birth remains undetermined. No record of his baptism survives, and the most authoritative source we have for his birth year comes from his first publication, in 1683.
  • More mysteries: Purcell’s death remains every bit as shadowy as his birth. Legend has it that Purcell spent a long, cold night locked out of his home and contracted pneumonia. His wife was evidently irritated by Purcell’s habit of staying out late at night, drinking with friends and carousing in the streets of London, though this tale is much disputed and may well have applied to another English composer, Maurice Greene.
  • Turned-up nose: Roger North, a contemporary of Purcell, a diarist, and a music historian, reported that Purcell may have been a bit of a snob. The composer, he wrote, “used to mark what did not take [with the public] for the best musick, it being his constant observation that what took least, was really best ...”
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Theater music: Purcell is, by far, best known for his operas, semi-operas, and incidental music for the British stage. There are many great recordings of this repertoire.
  • Sacred vocal music: Purcell wrote a lot of sacred music for the Chapel Royal, Westminster Cathedral, and for private religious fraternities. Some of it is highly dramatic, and its original function remains a mystery.
  • Instrumental music: Purcell experimented in all the latest genres early in his career. His trio sonatas are probably his best-known instrumental works. In particular, he created some beautiful solo keyboard music.  
Recommended Websites
  • Theater music
    • Dido and Aeneas (1689). Le concert d’Astrée, Emmanuelle Haim, conductor (Veritas, 2003).
    • The Fairy Queen (1692). Les Arts florissants, William Christie, conductor (Harmonia Mundi, 1989).
    • The Indian Queen (1695). English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner, director (Erato, 1990).
    • King Arthur (1691).  Les Arts florissants, William Christie, conductor (Erato, 1995).
  • Sacred vocal music
    • “Hail, Bright Cecilia,” Ode for St. Cecilia Day (1692).  
    • Taverner Consort Choir and Players; Andrew Parrott (Virgin Veritas, 1999, 2 CDs). Includes the funeral music for Queen Mary.
    • Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner (Erato, 1995).
    • “Tell me, some pitying angel,” The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation, 1693.
    • Henry Purcell: Victorious Love. Carolyn Sampson, soprano (Bis, 2008).
  • Various anthems for soloist, choir, organ, and/or orchestra
    • The Essential Purcell. Soloists/New College Choir, Oxford/The King’s Consort; Robert King (Hyperion, 1995).
    • Full Anthems and Choral Music. Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly (Naxos, 1995).
    • Verse Anthems. New College Choir, Oxford/The Band of Instruments/Edward Higginbottom.
  • Instrumental music
    • Sonatas of Three Parts (1683); Sonatas in Four Parts (posthumous, 1697).  
    • Both sets available on Complete Chamber Music: Overtures, Sonatas, Pavans, Fantasias, Suites (Brilliant Classics, 2007).
    • Harpsichord Music, John Gibbons, harpsichord (Centaur, 1999).