Henry Purcell
STUART MILLSON gives a glimpse into the life of Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell (1659-95) is forever associated with the birth of opera (or masques) in England – works such as King Arthur and The Fairy Queen – the creation of semi-operatic scenic cantatas, like his music for The Tempest, and with expansive works for church and state, especially his odes for William and Mary and their ‘Glorious Revolution’ – and, later, funeral music of intense mourning for Queen Mary. Not all artists or musicians are celebrated in their lifetime, but Purcell was recognised as a great composer, ascending to the heights of achievement for his time – a reputation which enhanced the career of his younger brother, Daniel – also a composer. But it is in our own world that Purcell has truly come into his own: an unending stream of recordings, often in period-instrument form, from some of the greatest interpreters of baroque music, such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and William Christie. For Denis Arnold, the renowned General Editor of The New Oxford Companion to Music, Purcell warranted not just a few paragraphs and a portrait, but three pages of musical description and discussion – another impressive measure of the man.

Jan van Kessel, ‘Personification of Music’

Purcell was the second of four brothers and followed an early career as a young chorister in the Chapel Royal of Charles II, enjoying the early Restoration flowering of art and music. By 1673, his angelic voice was no more, but his musical talents had made such an impression that he was appointed as the custodian of the King’s collection of instruments. He also became a composer-in-residence at Westminster Abbey, going on to succeed the great John Blow as organist.

Composers such as William Lawes wrote very much for the delight or diversion of the Stuart court; just half-a-century later, ‘serious’ music had emerged as a force to be reckoned with, especially in the theatre – as a form of art increasingly enjoyed by the wider society, with provocative political allegory never far from the surface. A perfect example is King Arthur (1691), with its libretto by John Dryden, which goes far beyond the boundaries of any conventional theatrical format – the story of the mythical warrior-king of the Britons, but with overtones of the contemporary struggle between the cause of James II (the rightful heir – but a Catholic) and the triumph of the Protestant succession, in the form of William of Orange. With its famous, ethereal patriotic air, ‘Fairest Isle’ – a slow, contemplative song sometimes extracted from the score and performed as a piece in its own right – Purcell emerges as a ‘composer-laureate’, long before the era of the national-composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their oratorios of ‘Blood and State’ (Parry) or ‘Banners of St. George’ (Elgar).

Purcell’s English mysticism is something we tend to associate with musicians of an epoch much closer to our own, such as Vaughan Williams with his Flos Campi or Five Mystical Songs, and Holst’s unchanging, unforgiving Wessex landscape of Egdon Heath. Purcell brings us into a markedly supernatural country, of charms and prophecies, and the extraordinary presence of a ghostly character, the ‘Cold Genius’ – a singing spirit of frost, ice and wasteland, brought to stuttering life by a shivering bass singer, accompanied in a curious pre-echo of 20th-century music by the icy, scratchy, toneless, guttural bowing of string instruments. Purcell was ahead of his time in other ways too –with the rumble of wind and thunder machines in The Tempest, and waves of scurrying strings suggesting a rushing tide about to break across the land – a scene straight from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 Suffolk opera, Peter Grimes (credited as the first great English opera since Purcell).

As a concertgoer or buyer of recordings, it is worth remembering your first experience of a particular work – and often more fun to replay that memory (or vinyl disc) and compare it to the many other versions which have proliferated in the intervening years. I first encountered Purcell’s Chaconne on a record-buying expedition in 1981, the work appearing on a Decca LP collection entitled ‘English Music for Strings’ – a 1968 recording made at Snape Maltings, with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

The Chaconne, or ‘Chacony’ as it is sometimes written, is an old dance-form, made up of variations (in Purcell’s piece, 18 in number) which flow effortlessly into one another, and founded upon what musicians know as a ground-bass theme (the deeper, more sonorous theme or tune that seems to underpin or “anchor” the whole work). Britten, a great admirer of Purcell, and of older English music generally, was immediately attracted to the gently-noble, faintly melancholic melody of the Chaconne, which had been preserved in a collection of Purcell manuscripts, stored in the British Museum.

Even with Britten’s modern string instrumentation and the rich reverberation it creates, we are transported in the first moments of the work to an England of 300 years ago – of lute- and viol-playing ‘people of quality’ at courts and country houses, of misty deer parks and an adjoining countryside of ancient steadings – and yet, despite the clear antiquity of the style, there is a universal essence to this music (very much like Bach) which somehow defies time. Readers may also enjoy the more authentic version of the Chaconne, performed by Canada’s Aradia Baroque Ensemble, which appears on the Naxos label, an interpretation that brings us the delicate, glassy, crystal feel of authentic baroque-era strings. The CD catalogues and Youtube brim with Purcell recordings.

This remarkable man, in charge of England’s musical formalities, was also fond of the occasional joke: listen, for example, to his Ode for the Birthday of Queen MaryCome Ye Sons of Art – to the section entitled, ‘Sound the trumpet’ and the line, “… the listening shores…” Something to do with all England listening for the word of its monarch, perhaps? Or a joke at the expense of trumpet-players, with the surname Shore – who had nothing to do in that particular section!

Pier Francesco Cittadini, ‘Vanitas – Stillleben’

Timelessness seems the very essence of Purcell, that shaper of national myth in music, a ghost who still comes back to life as the cold genius of our isle. It was the cold which brought about the composer’s untimely death in 1695: returning home late at night during a bitterly-cold November, so the story goes, it seems that he found himself locked out of his Marsham Street home by his wife of 14 years. And curiously, from then on, his country began to forget about him. The musicians and choristers of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey honoured his passing in a great service of remembrance ; yet the decades and centuries that followed saw the virtual disappearance of his name. Perhaps it was only Britten’s rediscovery in the 1940s and ‘60s that brought Purcell back to life – a crusade assisted and added to by composer-conductor, Malcolm Arnold, conducting full-blown arrangements of the 17th-century composer’s works at a Proms concert in the late 1960s. 1

What we can say with certainty is that the jibe made during the mid-19th century (principally by Germans), that England was “the land without music” was only partially true. We had simply forgotten about our own geniuses.

  1. Malcolm Arnold’s conducting of Purcell’s suite from Abdelazar is available via: https://www.amazon.com/Elgar-Concerto-Vaughan-Williams-Orchestra/dp/B000000TKX 

One thought on “England’s musical Shakespeare

  1. Thank you for this. It’s one of history’s ironies that such a genius still needs partisans to argue a case for him. And you managed to write about him without mentioning Dido and Aeneas.

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