Henry Purcell

(10 September 1659, London – 21 November 1695, London)


Born in London in a family of singers (his father and uncle were both members of the Chapel Royal), he is well known as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era. He first received music lessons under Captain Henry Cooke (1664) and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey, Cooke's successor. Rumor has, that Purcell first composed at the age of 9 years old, but his earliest work is an ode for the King's birthday, written in 1670. When his voice broke in 1673, he was appointed assistant to John Hingston, keeper of the king's instruments. After Humfrey's death, he continued his studies with Dr. John Blow.


From 1674 to 1678 he tuned the organ at Westminster Abbey and was employed there in 1675–76 to copy organ parts of anthems. In 1677 he succeeded Matthew Locke as the composer for Charles II’s string orchestra. It is believed that many of his church works date from this time. In 1679, following John Blow's resignation if favor of his pupil, Purcell was appointed organist of the Westminster Abbey. He now devoted himself to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theater. In addition to his royal duties, Purcell also devoted much of his talent to writing operas, or rather musical dramas, and incidental stage music; he also wrote chamber music in the form of harpsichord suites and trio sonatas thus, becoming involved with the growing London public concert scene.

Purcell composed his first ode for St. Cecilia's Day in 1683. The following month, upon Hingeston's death, he was named royal instrument keeper while retaining his other posts. The composer remained quite prolific in the middle part of the decade, primarily producing music for royal occasions.


Purcell came to be a very well known (maybe the best) as a songwriter because so many of his songs were printed in his lifetime and after his death were reprinted again and again. Between 1680 and 1688 Purcell wrote music for seven plays. The composition of his chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, and its earliest production may well have predated the documented one of 1689. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, and performed in 1689 in cooperation with Josias Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theater (having resumed his connection with the theater).

A fatal illness prevented him from finishing the music for the operatic version of John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard’s verse tragedy The Indian Queen (1664), which was completed after his death by his brother Daniel.  Henry Purcell's legacy includes almost every department of music. Considering his stage works, Purcell only wrote one full opera, a short work supposedly designed for a girls' school. The tragic story of Dido and Aeneas, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, has a perfection of its own. Dido’s final lament, before she kills herself, follows the model for such compositions established by Monteverdi 80 years before. Other stage works by Purcell are in the hybrid form now known as semi-opera, combining spoken drama with a musical element that in the concert hall may be performed apart from its wider dramatic context. These semi-operas include King Arthur, with a text by the poet John Dryden, a work that includes fascinating music for a chorus of cold people, frozen by the Cold Genius but thawed by the power of Love. The Fairy Queen, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, includes an interesting if apparently inappropriate Chinese masque, while The Tempest, again based on Shakespeare, includes songs and dance music of great interest. 

Purcell provided incidental music, dances and songs for a great many plays, including Aphra Behn’s Abdelazar or The Moor’s Revenge, a rondeau from which provides the theme for Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the OrchestraHe also composed songs and independent instrumental compositions, church music, secular vocal music and keyboard music.


Here  you can find a list with Henry Purcell's compositions.