Find Henry Purcell on

Ludwig van Beethoven


Purcell: Dido & Aeneas, Boston Baroque
King Arthur / Gens, McFadden, Piau, S. Waters, J. Best, Padmore, Paton, Salomaa, Les Arts Florissants, Christie


Purcell Remembered by Michael Burden


Dido and Aeneas / Mark Morris Dance Group (1995)
The Fairy Queen / English National Opera (1995)


Henry Purcell

Like other English composers of the early Baroque period, Henry Purcell was not well-known outside his native country.  For non-British audiences, Purcell’s main claim to fame is his Dido and Aeneas, until recently considered the first English opera (meaning a fully sung work with no dialogue).  Scholars now recognize that John Blow’s Venus and Adonis deserves that title, but Purcell’s work is still one of the few seventeenth-century operas to receive regular performances. In addition, Purcell’s anthems and odes have always remained a vital part of the English choral repertoire. 

Speculations about Purcell's Early Years

The details of Purcell’s early years are unclear at best: biographies of Purcell are littered with reiterations of “probably” and “possibly.”  He was born in 1659, probably in autumn, possibly on September 10.  His father was either Henry Purcell (Sr.) or Thomas Purcell; one was certainly the father, the other an uncle.  Both were musicians who earned appointments to the Chapel Royal following the Restoration, and Purcell himself was closely associated with the Chapel Royal for most of his life.

Sources indicate that Purcell spent all of his life in London.  The years of his early childhood coincided with a particularly turbulent historical period.  At the time Purcell was born, London had recently endured England’s Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and the failure of Cromwell’s son, Richard, to maintain it.  Richard Cromwell resigned the protectorate in 1659, and the coronation of Charles II followed in 1661, which restored the monarchy. 

In Purcell’s early childhood, London also suffered an outbreak of plague (1665) and the devastating Great Fire (1666).  The elder Henry Purcell, who died in 1664, may have been an early victim of the plague outbreak.  The second Dutch War also occupied much English attention between 1665 and 1667. This continuous upheaval left musical institutions in shambles, and among the first to be refurbished under Charles II was the Chapel Royal.  Young Purcell appears to have been appointed there as a chorister around 1668, under the direction of royalist veteran Henry Cooke.  In 1672, Cooke was succeeded by Pelham Humfrey, a singer and composer who had studied in France with the French court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.  Under the tutelage of these two directors, Purcell most likely studied singing and notation, learned to play and maintain several instruments (particularly keyboards), and received a first-rate education in composition.
We know from extant documents that Purcell’s voice broke in 1673.  He left the choir for a position as assistant to John Hingeston, who was responsible for the maintenance of the royal keyboard and wind instruments.  Purcell officially continued at this post until Hingeston’s death in 1683, when he replaced the older man.  It is likely that, after his voice changed, Purcell also had the opportunity to study with the preeminent musicians of the day.  His early teachers must have included John Blow, composer and organist at Westminster Abbey, and Matthew Locke, composer-in-ordinary for the Twenty-Four Violins, Charles II’s special court ensemble.  Evidence of Purcell’s compositional skills also surfaced during this time.   His “Staircase Overture” dates from sometime around 1675, in a popular musical form imported from France in the early years of the restored monarchy.  Additionally, a song or “catch” that had been included in Henry Playford’s 1667 edition of Catch that catch can is considered to be Purcell’s earliest work.

Life as a Court Musician

Upon Locke’s death in 1677, the eighteen-year-old Purcell acquired his post, but instead of focusing on instrumental music for the ensemble, he wrote mainly vocal music for some time.  His earliest extant anthem, from 1677, is entitled Lord, who can tell how oft he offendeth, and he composed the song “What hope for us remains now he is gone?” in honor of Locke in 1679.   Blow either retired or resigned his Westminster Abbey position in 1679, in either case this vacancy allowed for Purcell to become the Abbey’s organist. 

He kept busily composing as well.  In the space of a few weeks in the summer of 1680, Purcell produced nine viol fantasias in four parts.  These do not seem to be connected with the royal violin consort, but appear to have been written as compositional exercises during a time in which Purcell was much occupied studying English and Italian counterpoint.  His earliest known ode also dates from 1680, titled Welcome, viceregent of the mighty king.  In the 1670s, odes had marked the New Year and the birthday of the king, but Purcell’s early odes served as welcome songs honoring royal returns to London from abroad.  A welcome song for Charles II, "Swifter, Isis, swifter flow," was composed in 1681.
In September 1680, Purcell married Frances Peters.  Their first son, named Henry, was baptized and died in July 1681, only one week old.  Another infant son, John Baptista, suffered a similar fate in 1682, the same year that Thomas Purcell (the composer’s uncle or father) died.  In spite of such personal tragedy, Purcell’s career continued to move forward.  In 1683, he published twelve pieces for strings and keyboard, with the title Sonnata’s of III Parts.  The inauguration of William Pritchard as Lord Mayor of London included songs by Purcell, and welcome songs were performed for the king and for his brother James, Duke of York, upon his return from Scotland.  James was shortly to inherit the crown when Charles died in 1685 without a legitimate heir.  Purcell wrote songs on Charles II’s death, music for James’ coronation, and a welcome song for James on his victory over the Monmouth Rebellion.  The Anglican Chapel Royal, however, did not retain its formerly high standing under James’ Catholic rule.  Nonetheless Purcell’s employment continued essentially intact, but he no longer held the title of “composer,” and his payment was somewhat neglected.

Composing for The Theater

James’ accession led to escalating religious tensions, which came to a head with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  The reign of William and Mary brought further changes to music at the royal court, and while Purcell retained a position there, he now supplemented his income with other projects.  He began his recurrent role as editor of  (and contributor to) Henry Playford’s music publications, began teaching, and turned increasingly to composing theatrical music.  He edited the first volume of Playford’s Harmonia Sacra in 1687, and included twelve of his own works in the collection.  Its distinctly Protestant character made this volume, published while the Roman Catholic James held power, a somewhat daring enterprise. The second volume, printed in 1693, contained five of Purcell’s own compositions, including the cantata-like song "Tell me, some pitying angel." Playford’s The Second Part of Musick’s Hand-Maid provided a second editing project and was published in 1689.
In 1680 he had provided some incidental music to Theodosius, by English playwright Nathaniel Lee, followed by contributions to several subsequent plays.  However, he did not focus fully on works for the stage until nearly a decade later.  His best known of such works, the masque Dido and Aeneas, was based on the Roman poet Virgil and written on a libretto by the soon-to-be poet laureate Nahum Tate.  While the details of its premiere are uncertain, we do know that it received a performance in 1689, given by the female students at choreographer Josiah Priest’s boarding school in Chelsea.  Now generally considered Purcell’s only “full opera,” the work has remained in the standard operatic repertoire to this day.
1688 and 1689 brought Purcell and his wife some joy at last, with the births of their two surviving children, Frances and Edward.  While the composer continued to write music for the court, his new career as a theater composer was flourishing. Dioclesian, a semi-opera with text by English actor Thomas Betterton, debuted in June of 1690 at the Dorset Garden theater in London.  Former poet laureate John Dryden wrote a spoken prologue for the piece, but it had to be cut from both production and publication after the first performance, due to its use of thinly-veiled anti-Williamite political allegory. 

Dryden and Purcell worked together on the semi-opera King Arthur, which premiered at Dorset Garden in 1691.  The libretto came primarily from an ill-fated operatic piece that Dryden had had in rehearsal at the time of Charles II’s death, and so had been abandoned.  King Arthur, like much of Dryden’s work, may be read as political.  It has been interpreted as an expression of Jacobite sentiments, though Dryden wrote that he had revised it to make the text less offensive to the current government.   Its plot also retains some striking similarities to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a source to which both Dryden and Purcell would return in a few years.  Shakespeare’s work also played a role in Purcell’s last complete opera, The Fairy-Queen, adapted by the composer and an unknown author from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1692.  His final semi-opera, The Indian Queen, was finished by Purcell’s younger brother, Daniel. 

Purcell’s theatrical works were extremely successful; they were often revived after their first runs, and the demand was high for printed scores of his works.  Significantly, several songs from his public-playhouse works, including King Arthur and Dioclesian, also found their way into Samuel Pepys’ contemporary collection of popular ballads.

Last Works

Among Purcell’s numerous late choral works, the 1692 ode Hail, bright Cecilia (for the November 22 celebration in honor of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music) and the 1694 ode for Queen Mary’s birthday, Come, ye sons of art, away are most notable.  Purcell had written odes for all of Mary’s birthdays since her coronation with William, but in January 1695, he found himself composing music for her funeral.  Mary II died of smallpox in December 1694, at the age of thirty-two, and after she had lain in state, the burial took place the following March.  Purcell’s funeral music comprised a somber march he had written for a revival of Thomas Shadwell’s play The Libertine, a trumpet canzona, and anthems including Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts.

In July 1695, Purcell composed his last ode (Who can from joy refrain?), for the sixth birthday of William’s heir, the little Duke of Gloucester.  What seems to be his last song, "Lovely Albina’s come ashore," must have followed sometime in the fall.
Little is known conclusively about Purcell’s final illness; a popular story has him locked out by his wife after returning home intoxicated, thus catching a fatal cold.  There is no evidence either to substantiate or to disprove this story.  In any event, it is certain that his will was written out hastily with Frances’s brother and two neighbors as witnesses.  Purcell died at the age of thirty-six on November 21, 1695, on the eve of St. Cecilia’s Day.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near the organ, and the procession was accompanied by the same music he had assembled for the Queen’s funeral.  


Duffy, Maureen. Purcell. London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1994.

Holman, Peter, Robert Thompson, and Mark Humphreys: ‘Henry Purcell’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 12 October 2005), <>

Holman, Peter.  “Consort Music.”  The Purcell Companion.  Ed. Michael Burden. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994.  254-96.

Pinnock, Andrew.  “The Purcell Phenomenon.”  The Purcell Companion.  Ed. Michael Burden. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994.  3-17.

Savage, Roger.  “The Theatre Music.” The Purcell Companion.  Ed. Michael Burden. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994.  313-83.

Wood, Bruce.  “Purcell’s Odes: A Reappraisal.” The Purcell Companion.  Ed. Michael Burden. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994.  200-53.