Famous Composers: Henry Purcell

Famous Composers Henry Purcell  Sonatica Blog

The sixteenth century was extraordinarily productive of composers, among them such important figures as Palestrina and Monteverdi from Italy, Heinrich Schütz from Saxony, Orlande de Lassus from Flanders, Tomas Luis de Victoria from Spain and a crowd of Englishmen. By sad contrast the only composer of real historical significance born during the first half of the seventeenth was Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-87, Italian by birth and French by naturalization) whose ballets and operas earned him fame and favour at the court of King Louis XIV, established major/minor tonality on a sound basis, and helped to bridge the chronological gap between the death of Monteverdi in 1643 and the advent to maturity of Henry Purcell and Alessandro Scarlatti some forty years later.

HENRY PURCELL (1659-1695) was born in Westminster and lived there all his life. For many years historians were in doubt about his parentage, but research by Sir Jack Westrup has established conclusively that he was the son of Thomas Purcell and not, as was long believed, of Thomas’ elder brother Henry. This Thomas was an accomplished court- musician who under the Commonwealth must have been hard put to it to earn a good living but after the Restoration became a veritable Pooh-Bah - ‘gentleman of the Chapel Royal, musician for the lute, viol and voices, composer for the violins, groom of the robes, and musician-in-ordinary for the private music'. Small wonder that young Henry, with this background, should have found himself first a chorister at the Chapel Royal and subsequently assistant keeper of the King’s instruments, organ-tuner at Westminster Abbey, and composer-in-ordinary for the violins; even greater honour was in store, for in 1679 he was appointed organist at the abbey, where he officiated at two royal funerals and two coronations - and in due course was buried. Little is known of his private affairs except that he married (in 1681) and had six children, of whom the three eldest died in infancy. (His wife and two of the younger children survived him by many years.) Although he died at the early age of thirty-six Purcell’s career spanned five regimes in English history - those of Richard Cromwell, Charles II, James II, William III and Mary, William III solus; furthermore his younger brother Daniel, a well-known musician in his day, outlived both William III and Queene Anne and was thus able to welcome our first Hanoverian monarch, George. I. Another curious fact worth noting is that Purcell was both preceded and followed as organist of Westminster Abbey by John Blow - best remembered for the masque (i.e. dance-opera) Venus and Adonis.

Apart from occasional trips to Windsor and Hampton Court during his keeper-of-the-instruments and organ-tuning days, Purcell (just because he was a Londoner, perhaps) seems never to have ventured more than a mile or two from home; his reputation has travelled much further afield - and deservedly so. His art had a wider range than that of Alessandro Scarlatti, since Purcell was not narrowly English in the sense that Scarlatti was, if not narrowly, then at least specifically, Italian. Admittedly Purcell now and again drew on folk- melody and also inherited certain tics of part-writing from the Elizabethan madrigalists; what is of greater significance is that he imparted a cosmopolitan flavour to his music by adapting to his own purposes the Frenchified Italianisms of J. B. Lully.

Yet in the theatre Purcell unquestionably showed his birthright. In only one of his stage-works - Dido and Aeneas - were the songs, choruses and dances linked together in the Italian manner by recitative; all the rest (some forty-five) incorporated spoken dialogue, and indeed it is hard to draw a firm line between the few which were operas with dialogue and the many which were plays with incidental music. Whatever one calls them these productions, though often bawdy enough to satisfy prevailing tastes, could be of high literary (as well as musical) calibre. Some were adaptations of Shakespeare - King Richard II, The Fairy Queen (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Timon of Athens, The Tempest-, others of Beaumont and Fletcher - Dioclesian (from The Prophetess), The Double Marriage, Bonduca; John Dryden had a hand in King Arthur and The Indian Queen; Thomas Shadwell provided Epsom Wells and The Libertine and William Congreve (then in his early twenties) The Old Bachelor and The Double-dealer. Several of Purcell’s best-known songs were composed for these English dramas and comedies: e.g. ‘When I am laid in earth’ (Dido and Aeneas), ‘What shall I do to show how much I love her?’ (Dioclesian), ‘Nymphs and shepherds, come away’ (The Libertine) and ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’ (The Indian Queen). All four, in their differing moods, are representative of his genius; the first, Dido’s lament, is something more, being one of the most moving expressions of human sorrow in the whole history of music.

Despite the unassuming charm of some fifty little pieces for harpsichord and a dozen or so ‘fantasies’ for strings, Purcell’s most noteworthy contribution to instrumental music was a set of twenty-two sonatas for two violins and cello - a harpsichord providing the continuo accompaniment. All but one of these sonatas incorporated four or five movements in contrasted tempi, but they were intended to be played without a break. (In the seventeenth century a sonata was merely a piece of music for sounding - i.e. for playing on instruments - as disunct from a cantata, a piece for singing. It was not until later that cantata came to mean an extended vocal or choral work with orchestral accompaniment and that the word sonata was associated with pieces for a single instrument or two at the most, let alone with ‘sonata form’ - which will be described in due course. In the Purcell Society’s editions the continuo of the sonatas was realized for performance on a modern piano: in the first volume by J. A. Fuller-Maitland - with considerable restraint - and in the second by Charles Villiers Stanford - with much greater freedom.)

Some historians believe that Purcell originally planned twenty-four sonatas for this combination of instruments - one each in every minor and major key. That the first eight are paired in relatives - G minor and B flat major (two flats in the key signature), D minor and F major (one flat), A minor and C major (no sharps or flats), E minor and G major (one sharp) - is certainly suggestive, but the remain¬ing four from the first volume, published in 1683, provide the irrelevant mixture of C minor (three flats), A major (three sharps), F minor (four flats) and D major (two sharps); of the ten in the second volume, published by his widow Frances Purcell in 1697, the first two are in B minor (the relative of D major) and E flat major (the relative of C minor), but all the rest are in keys that have already had their turn - one each in C, D arid F major, D and A minor, and no less than three in G minor. Therefore Purcell can hardly be credited with having anticipated the zealous logic of J. S. Bach in his ‘Forty-eight preludes and fugues for well-tempered clavier’ or Chopin’s equally consistent approach in his twenty-four preludes op. 28. Nevertheless certain features of the key-structure of these sonatas demand comment. First: the separate movements of each sonata were all in the same key except (a) the short third movement - hardly more than a connecting passage - of no. 10 in A major, which set out on its little tour of modulation from an emphatic chord of F sharp major, and (b) the F minor adagio belonging to the F major no. 9 from the second volume (sometimes known as the ‘golden’ sonata). Secondly: none of the minor movements finished on a major chord, although contemporary ears were already attuned to the tierce de Picardie (a conventional full close in the major which was really a modal survival). Thirdly and per contra: no. 12 in D major ended, most unexpectedly, in D minor.

Purcell’s sacred works - mostly anthems but also including hymns and canticles - were nearly all written before he consummated his powers in opera (or something like it). They are interesting not so much for their own sake as because they provide a link between the (Anglican) ecclesiastical music of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and that of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth. The anthems were all based on passages from the Old Testament (generally from the Psalms) and unlike those of pre-Restoration days tended to be in verse-plus- refrain form; in the verse sections Purcell set a fine prece¬dent by following both the sense and the underlying rhythm of the words and inclined to adopt a declamatory style foreshadowing Handel (in Lord, who can tell how oft he offendeth, for instance), but taken as a whole his Church music was no more sacred in character than the music of his operas, secular cantatas, ‘welcome-songs’ and ‘odes’ - one of which, celebrating St Cecilia’s Day 1692 and entitled Hail, bright Cecilia - was indeed a splendid outburst of commemoration. It might be added that Henry Purcell himself was the most worthy British-born representative of St Cecilia during a musically rather dim period of our island story which spanned some three hundred and fifty years.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.