Henry Purcell



We know little about the composer Henry Purcell, yet his music seems to contain something personal and heartfelt. It makes him a bit mysterious. We know where he was, and when, but history lacks detail on who he was. He lived at a time of catastrophe and change in England. Did it affect what he wrote? We don’t know!

Purcell is seen as the greatest English composer between William Byrd (who had died about 30 years before Purcell was born) and Edward Elgar (born c. 150 years after Purcell died). He worked for three different kings in Westminster over 25 years. He witnessed London’s bubonic plague of 1665, which killed nearly a sixth of the capital’s population, then the Great Fire a year later, which left parts of London barren and flattened. He watched the city’s politics and commerce grow, yet the king still spent too much money and the barbaric practice of beheading traitors and displaying the heads on London Bridge was still happening, as it had since the 14th century. What a time!

Purcell was a boy chorister in the Chapel Royal and eventually the organist there and at Westminster Abbey. He composed settings of odes (poems), anthems (quite formal pieces for a choir), fantazias (instrumental pieces), drinking songs, music for masques (plays with singing and dancing, the actors wearing masks), operas, and more.

He lived only until he was 36 – a similar age to Mozart. We don’t know how he died. In fact, he could even have been 35 because his date of birth is not 100% confirmed. But this man, in his short life, wrote music like ‘Dido’s Lament’ (from his opera Dido and Aeneas) and Hear my prayer, O Lord – music that mesmerises the listener and seems to capture with such warmth the loneliness of every human being.

He wrote Funeral Music for Queen Mary; she died in 1694 and the nation mourned her with a lavish funeral in March 1695, which included Purcell’s music. Alas, later the same year, it was played again – at Purcell’s own funeral.

Henry Purcell, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Purcell’s pieces are waiting for you…

The Indian Queen, Z. 630: Trumpet Tune

This famous trumpet tune comes from Purcell’s masque The Indian Queen, Z. 630. It is simple, memorable and stately.

Performers: György Geiger, trumpet; Bertalan Hock, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.556839

Chacony, Z. 730

This chacony (a chaconne – a sort of stately dance) is more sombre. The melody unwinds in a stately manner over the ‘ground bass’ – a line at the bottom of the music that keeps repeating. Britten loved this piece.

Performers: Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.556839

Dido and Aeneas, Z. 626: Act III: When I am laid in earth (‘Dido’s Lament’)

‘Dido’s Lament’ is from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Dido sings this lament as she prepares for death. Can you hear how the gentle string instruments underneath play long notes that keep going down step by step?

Performers: Kym Amps, soprano; Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.556839

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which of these monarchs did Purcell write music for?

a. Henry VIII
b. James II
c. Queen Elizabeth

 Purcell was adept at which instrument?

a. Piano
b. Organ
c. Mandolin

 When he was a boy, Purcell was a what in the Chapel Royal?

a. Chimney sweep
b. Conductor
c. Chorister

 Purcell was about how old when he died?

a. 57
b. 81
c. 36

 Purcell wrote which famous English Opera?

a. Peter Grimes
b. Fidelio
c. Dido and Aeneas

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Purcell became known as ‘the English Orpheus’, or ‘Orpheus Britannica’: in ancient Greek myth, Orpheus was able to charm any living thing with his music.
  2. Benjamin Britten admired Purcell’s music. He used a theme from Purcell’s ballet Abdelazar as the basis for his popular Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
  3.  Purcell had six children by his wife, Frances, but only two lived past childhood.
  4. Purcell’s dates are easy to remember because the birth year and death year contain the same numbers, just with the second two switched round: 1659–1695.
  5. Purcell was buried near the organ in Westminster Abbey.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Choral Works

Hear my prayer, O Lord, Z. 15

In this particularly beautiful anthem, there are many chromatic notes – notes in between the ones your ears might expect. They give a richness to the music and make the chords kind of crunchy and satisfying. They are sometimes called ‘false relations’, because they don’t fit with the main key of the music. Purcell knew exactly how to use them!

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553129

Blow up the trumpet in Sion, Z. 10

Like Hear my prayer, O Lord, this is a fairly early piece – Purcell was probably not yet 20 when he wrote it. The Biblical text is from the book of Joel. Different groups of voices answer each other, sometimes singing in a block (as at the beginning) and sometimes with more individual lines weaving in and out of each other (e.g at 4.12). The bouncy rhythm on ‘blow up the trumpet’ is a ‘dotted’ rhythm, making the theme strong and distinctive.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553129

Welcome to all the pleasures, ‘Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day’, Z. 339

This major work was written for the inaugural festival dedicated to the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia. It consists of a succession of short solos, vocal ensembles and choruses, set off with string movements. It an elaborate work, and Purcell was particularly proud of it.

Performers: Jeni Bern, soprano; Susan Bisatt, soprano; Christopher Robson, counter-tenor; William Purefoy, counter-tenor; Ian Honeyman, tenor; Thomas Guthrie, bass; Choir and Orchestra of the Golden Age; Robert Glenton

Taken from Naxos 8.553444

Music on the Death of Queen Mary (Funeral Sentences/The Queen’s Epicedium)

Using text from the Book of Common Prayer, this was written for the funeral of Queen Mary II, who died in 1694. Her death was a tragic blow to the country, and no expense was spared for her funeral in March 1695. The architect Sir Christopher Wren made sure that the route to Westminster was lined with black railings; 300 old women led the funeral procession dressed in black, their long trains carried by boys. It was spectacular. And how perfectly the occasion was wrapped in Purcell’s sad yet soothing music. Alas, the nation also lost the young Purcell soon afterwards, and the same music was performed at his own funeral in November of the same year.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Laurence Cummings, organ; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553129

Instrumental Works

Trumpet Sonata in D Major, Z. 850

It was likely that this was written for a public concert, giving opportunity for one of Purcell’s favourite trumpeters to show off. But showing off didn’t mean ‘here’s a load of clever things I can do on the trumpet’! English trumpeters were noted for the purity and clarity of their playing – the quality of sound they could produce – and this would have allowed them to shine. The soloist gets a break in the short slow movement. The name ‘Sonata’ is not connected with the sonatas we find later from composers like Mozart in the Classical era; at this time, ‘sonata’ (from the Latin/Italian ‘sonare’, ‘to sound’) just meant that the music was played by instruments, as opposed to a ‘cantata’ (from the Latin ‘cantare’, ‘to sing’) – a piece that was sung by voices.

Performers: David Staff, trumpet; Orchestra of the Golden Age; Robert Glenton

Taken from Naxos 8.553444

Four-Part Fantazias

No one knows why Purcell wrote these rich, sombre works. Like Beethoven’s late string quartets or Bach’s The Art of Fugue, they have a depth of expression that can’t obviously be linked to any external cause. They come at the end of a long English tradition of viol music – viols were early string instruments. Sometimes such music can seem rather impersonal, but not here: Purcell touches hearts.

Performers: The Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.553957

Fantazia Upon One Note in F Major, Z. 745

Purcell creates a gradually evolving web of lines around a quietly held note of C in the middle of it all. The music becomes more lively at 2.15 – but still with the held C in the middle of it all. Can you hear it? It quietens down again for the ending.

Performers: Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.553957

Suite No. 1 in G major, Z. 660

Purcell’s eight harpsichord suites are brief, straight-forward and attractive. They were written for amateur harpsichord players. They were published by Purcell’s wife after the composer had died. The Prelude has four beats in a bar, the Almand two beats, the Corant three, and the Minuet also three. Each one, suggesting a dance, feels a bit different.

Performers: Terence R. Charlston, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.553982

Suite No. 8 in F major, Z. 660

The last of Purcell’s harpsichord suites is rather longer than the first, but still brief.

Performers: Terence R. Charlston, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.553982

Operas and Masques

Dido and Aeneas, Z. 626

Purcell’s opera, composed in 1688, consisted of a prologue and three acts. It was first performed at a girls’ school in London. It describes the Queen of Carthage’s love for the Trojan hero, Aeneas. The prologue was lost; what remains is the first well-known English opera and one of the best ever written. The final lament (‘When I am laid in earth’ – ‘Dido’s Lament’, track 40) is particularly well known, with its incredible beauty of expression.

Performers: Kym Amps, Dido (soprano); Anna Crookes, Belinda (soprano); David van Asch, Aeneas (bass); The Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.553108

The Indian Queen, Z. 630

Purcell did not complete this ‘semi-opera’. A version was produced in 1695, the year of Purcell’s death. It was written to accompany a play by John Dryden and his brother-in-law Robert Howard. Perhaps because it was not completed it has not been as popular as Dido and Aeneas, but it contains much wonderful music, such as ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’ (track 27 here).

Performers: Kym Amps, soprano; Anna Crookes, soprano; Angus Davidson, counter-tenor; David Gould, counter-tenor; Robin Doveton, tenor; Julian Podger, tenor; David van Asch, bass; Adrian Peacock, bass; The Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.553752