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When King Charles II returned from his ‘travels’ (as he called his exile during the Commonwealth), he brought a complete change of life and manners into London. Although this had many undesirable features, his return was good for music.

Puritan rule had forbidden theaters and suppressed the cathedral service. As a result, the grand old church music of Byrd and Gibbons had been long silenced. The new music of the theatre also made no mark. 

Charles had spent some time at the French court. Although when he returned to England in 1660 the opera of Lully had not begun, he enjoyed the dances, ballets and ‘masquerades’ of the French. He had also heard the early church music of Lully, which was scarcely less secular in rhythm and spirit than his theatre music. 

Henry Purcell

The services of the Chapel Royal were reopened, and a choir was brought together under the mastership of Captain Cook. He was a musician who had received his military title by serving in the army of Charles I against the Parliamentary forces.

Captain Cook seems to have been very shrewd in finding young men of real musical talent for his choir. One of them was Henry Purcell (born 1658) who became the greatest musician of his time.

Purcell lived his short life as a London musician. There were few events of importance to mark it except the productions of his very numerous compositions and perhaps his appointment as organist of Westminster Abbey in 1680.

His career extended over the reigns of Charles II, James II, and the joint reign of William and Mary. The composition of Queen Mary’s funeral music was one of his last duties. 

What gives Purcell his acknowledged place as a great composer—and makes him spoken of as the greatest of English composer— is his extraordinary talent of taking every known form of composition and writing fine music for it.

He did not specialize in any one branch but wrote quantities of music for the church, for the theatre, for the concert-room (which now became an established institution in London). Alongside this was chamber music (that is, music for performance in private houses), songs, dialogues, and instrumental works. Whatever he touched had a certain strong, fresh individuality which marked his work as distinct from that of any other man.

Coronation of James II with anthems composed by Purcell.

The influence of older and of contemporary composers is often clear, and the fact that he made use of so many influences is not the least part of his skill. The old English church composers make themselves felt in the best of his church music. 

Lully’s French methods appear in his theatrical overtures, dances, and songs. He acknowledged that his sonatas for stringed instruments were built on Italian models. Yet he never seems to be copying or writing imitations. Purcell built his own style upon the work of his predecessors.

Purcell’s Church Music

Purcell’s church music consists of a great number of anthems. Some of which like ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ and ‘O sing unto the Lord’ are written in the popular style of the day. Others are on a much grander scale, such as the wonderfully heartfelt funeral music written for the funeral of Queen Mary, and repeated in the following year at the composer’s own funeral in 1694.


An extract from Purcell’s music

His most celebrated piece of church music was written in the last year of his life: Purcell’s Te Deum (“You, O God, [we praise]”) and Jubilate (“Praise!”) in D for voices, strings, trumpets, and organ.

This great work sums up all the new characteristics which belong to the church music of the Restoration composers. It is so important that every one who wishes to understand the differences between its music and that of the older school of Byrd and Gibbons must study it.

What strikes one at once is the wonderful variety of expression it contains. A few examples will reveal this:

First, listen to the theme of the instrumental introduction which is then sung by the voices afterwards to the words, ‘We praise Thee.’ It is a short march-like phrase, played by trumpets and violins alternately. It is opposite to the serene calm of the Te Deum’s of Gibbon or Byrd. Instead, minor, it gives the feeling of a great and moving procession.

Next, notice the way in which the voices mount up the notes of the chord of D proclaiming the word ‘All’, then finally sing it together on a brilliant sounding chord accompanied by all the instruments.

Finally, at ‘the Father everlasting,’ the voices move in smooth and flowing counterpoint as though those words brought the composer back to the solemn thoughts which held the minds of older writers. 

The big exclamations of the word ‘Holy’ by the whole choir while two treble voices repeat ‘continually do cry’, and the broad choral phrase to give the idea of ‘Majesty’, are further examples of Purcell’s remarkable variety.

Almost every moment shows his sympathy with the spirit of the words. It

Listen to Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate (6 min)

Listen from the beginning to 5:45. You are welcome to listen to more, of course. This particular version does not show the choir, but provides the text in a setting where Purcell’s music would have been played. This should enable you to focus on the different types of music used throughout the entire piece.

Theatre Music

There was no opera house in England in Purcell’s day, but a play was not considered complete without the introduction of music and dances.

When new plays were written, authors would provide opportunities for music. When old ones were revived, such as Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, they would be altered (and even shamelessly rewritten) to make room for the display of song and dance, generally called a ‘masque’.

The play Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge was a popular melodramatic theater play whose story has generally been forgotten. The music Purcell wrote for it, on the other hand, is still remarkably popular, even appearing in many modern films. It is likely Purcell’s best known work.

The piece is divided into a number of different movements which can each stand on their own. The Rondeau is likely the most famous, along with some of the Airs and the Hornpipe.

Listen to the Rondeau from the Abdelazer Suite (3 min)

Overtures, dances, and songs flowed from Purcell’s pen with amazing ease. As a result, it is not surprising that he often repeated himself and adopted a rather stereotyped form. Yet the fertility of his invention is very remarkable, much more so than that of Lully who was doing the same sort of work at the same time in Paris.

Dido and Aeneas

Purcell only produced one real opera and that was the beautiful Dido and Aeneas. Curiously enough, this was written for performance in a school of young ladies maintained by a man named Priest. He was a fashionable dancing-master who also used to arrange the dance numbers at theaters for which Purcell composed.

Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s epic poem

The story concerns Aeneas’ love for Dido, the Queen of Carthage. It recounts their relationship, their separation, and Dido’s eventual death. The opera is full of wonderfully pure and moving music.

Even the overture which opens the piece is so exactly in the form which Lully laid down that it should be compared closely to Lully’s work. Yet Purcell was a far superior composer to Lully; it is yet another example of him taking material from another country, and making it far better.

Listen to Purcell’s Overture to Dido and Aeneas (2 min)

There is one aria entitled ‘Dido’s Lament’ that is particularly important. It is possibly the most perfect song Purcell wrote, and was unsurpassed by anything written by composers of other countries by this date. 

Like so many of Purcell’s best songs it is written upon a ground bass, in this case a wonderfully pathetic theme of descending semitones. The ground bass was one of the unique developments in England before Purcell; it a bass part that repeats itself while the melody and voices over it change and vary.

Above the solemn repetitions of the ground bass, the soprano voice sings a broad melody. Notice especially the drooping fifths on the word ‘trouble’ wherever it occurs. Also note the words ‘Remember me’ sung pensively on a single note (D), which rises to the high G when the feeling becomes most intense right before the end. 

The chromatic harmonies (that is, notes that don’t belong to the same tones of the piece) are also very striking. They show that Purcell realized what strength of expression such things give at a time when they were scarcely appreciated by musicians.

Listen to Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’ sung by soprano Jessye Norman (4 min)

Jessye Norman is one of the great sopranos of the late 20th century; her range and tone were legendary. (Note that at the end of the video, she is finishing an interview in German about the aria; you can disregard this.)

Lyrics:

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
no trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Dido and Aeneas is sufficient to show that Purcell had a genius for this sort of art. If he had lived to write other complete operas, the course of that form of music in England would have been different.

As it was, Dido and Aeneas made little more than a passing impression. The patchwork system of plays with incidental music continued its vogue until it was quenched by the coming of Italian opera to London.

Instrumental Music

One more branch of Purcell’s art must be noticed before we take leave of him, and that is his music for instruments alone.

In 1683, Purcell published twelve sonatas ‘of three parts’, that is, for two violins, violoncello (or viol da gamba) with harpsichord accompaniment. He explained he had ‘faithfully endeavoured a just imitation of the most famed Italian models’. 

Baroque instruments included the viola da gamba, violin, lute, chamber organ, recorder, oboe, bassoon, flute, panpipe, hunting horn, bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy and triangle

It is not clear what Italian works Purcell had seen. It certainly was not Corelli’s, whose first book of sonatas was published the same year. When we take this fact into account, his achievement in this direction is certainly much greater.  

Although we do not find the intimate knowledge of what suits the stringed instruments, they are full of fine writing, including bold harmonies, clever and humorous imitations between the parts, and strong contrasts between slow and quick movements.

Watch a short documentary on Purcell’s sonatas of three parts (5 min)

It is an interview with a musician who had recently recorded a set of Purcell sonatas. It gives both examples of the playing, as well as a musician’s view on it.

It must have seemed as though Purcell could do everything for his art. His genius was inexhaustible and untiring, and yet it was suddenly cut short. Purcell unexpectedly died after a short illness on November 21, 1695 on the eve of St. Cecilia’s day, whose festival he had celebrated so often and so well.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where you may see his grave in the south choir aisle close to the organ.

Purcell’s grave marker in Westminster Abbey