Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell, arguably the greatest English composer of Baroque music, died on this day the 21st of November, 1695.

Henry Purcell, after John Closterman. NPG 2150. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Henry Purcell had been born in late 1659, so that means he was around thirty-six years old at the time of his death. I always find this quite sad, for him – and for us – that he did not live longer. If he had, who knows how much more amazing music we would have been privileged to hear and enjoy?

So, what happened?

There is an oft-repeated story in which a drunk Purcell came home to find that his wife, Frances, had locked him out in the cold and rain. There is no hard evidence to support this, but from Purcell’s will we learn that he was very ill and probably knew he was dying. Purcell had made some incredibly grand and moving funeral music  for Queen Mary II’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in early 1695. Here is a clip from one of the many recordings of this fine work, performed exquisitely by Timothy Brown & The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge:

Next, we have Henry Purcell’s accompaniment to Aphra Behn’s play “Abdelazar: Or the Moor’s Revenge:” This delightful piece is performed by Ensemble Artaserse, which was formed by my favourite countertenor, Phillippe Jaroussky:

“If Love’s a Sweet Passion.”

Purcell made great contribution to music, and popular culture. Whilst I dislike the film, “A Clockwork Orange,” the main theme from March from Queen Mary’s funeral is used and is still popularly commented upon throughout social media sites like YouTube. Now, the main melody in this piece has been used in countless period dramas, most notably in Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” from 2005, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen, during their dance scene. The film’s composer, Dario Marianelli, used the main theme from “Abdelazar” (which Purcell wrote for Restoration poetess/playwright Aphra Behn’s play, “Abdelazar: Or, the Moor’s Revenge).

I have the Rondeau from Abdelazar set as the first piece of music on the music player at the top left of this website. Also, the “Hornpipe” from “Abdelazar” was used in “Becoming Jane,” about the life of Jane Austen, which starred Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.

So, as you can see, the great composer Henry Purcell is still very much a part of our culture. His music lives on to touch our hearts, make us merry, and let our spirits soar to the greatest of heights. Thank you, Master Purcell!

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