Skip to main content

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

By the end of Henry Purcell’s short life, he would be remembered not only as a great composer of the Baroque era, but also as one of the greatest composers England has ever produced.

Born in Westminster, London, Purcell was recognized as a prodigy from a young age, singing in the Chapel Royal’s choir and composing as a child, as evidenced by a published three-part song surviving from when he was only 8 years old. After his voice broke, he was trained in organ playing and was groomed for the position he held until the end of his life: the organ-maker and keeper of instruments for the King of England himself. He played organ at two coronations, provided much royal music of note (including Funeral Music for Queen Mary), and wrote a decent body of church music.

However, during his life he was barely known for these things outside of high circles, but was much in demand for his works for the theatre. Starting with Theodosius and continuing with The Fairy Queen, Dioclesian, and his masterwork, Dido and Aeneas, one can sense how Purcell took the lightness and harmonic clarity of the Italian vocal tradition and filtered it through his own unique (and positively English) compositional voice.

Purcell also displayed a remarkable breadth of compositional talent, taking on secular bar songs as easily as royal court music. Known to spend meticulous attention to detail no matter how large or small a piece, Purcell earned the respect of his peers and of his audiences, whether the public or the royal court. He was a man who was very well respected, but little is known of his personal life or demeanor. Unlike so many composers of the Baroque era, nearly his entire adult oeuvre is intact, partially due to his royal position and relative fame. A master of many genres, Purcell left a tremendous legacy in his brief 36 years, and one that despite his short years still leaves him revered as one of England’s cultural treasures.