Henry On November 21, 1695 England lost

Henry Purcell is regarded by many today as the greatest English composer of all time. Although his life was brief, he left a large body of work. This lesson will examine his life and music.

A Sad Day for England

On November 21, 1695 England lost their beloved and revered composer, Henry Purcell. His music had brought much needed respect to the British Isles, and all of Europe recognized his talent. The question on everyone’s mind was how to honor the man. Where should the genius of England be laid to rest? Before we get to the answer, let’s learn a little more about why Purcell was such a big deal.

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Painting of Henry Purcell by John Closterman.
Painting of Henry Purcell

Purcell’s Life

Henry Purcell’s origins are a bit obscure. He was born circa 1659 in London, England.

His father was employed at the Chapel Royal, a training ground for court musicians. Henry was a chorister there as a young boy. He had at least three brothers, Edward, Daniel, and Joseph. Daniel was also a composer and ended up completing some of the work Henry left unfinished at his death.After the young Henry’s voice changed, he continued to work for the court in a variety of music positions. These positions included keeper of the king’s instruments, organist, composer, and organ tuner. His most important appointments were as organist for Westminster Abbey and organist for the Chapel Royal.

He spent his entire life in Westminster, employed in the service of James II, William III, and Mary.

Westminster Abbey
Photo of Westminster Abbey

Purcell married in 1680 or 1681. We know of six children, three of whom survived into adulthood. One of the three, Edward, became a musician, as did his son, Edward Henry.Henry Purcell died of tuberculosis on November 21, 1695 in London. To honor his stature as the most important English composer of his day, he was buried under the organ of Westminster Abbey.

His wife continued to publish his music posthumously, including the famous collection of songs known as Orpheus Britannicus.

Purcell’s Music

Purcell began composing at a very young age. At age eight he wrote a three-part song for Catch That Catch Can, a volume of catches, rounds, and part songs.

In music a catch was a humorous song for multiple voices sung in a round, much like we sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat today. Purcell must have enjoyed this type of song as he composed over 50 catches in his lifetime.

Manuscript of an instrumental work.
Painting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Painting of Dido and Aeneas

When Purcell died at the young age of 36, he left behind hundreds of choral pieces, songs, instrumental works, pieces for worship, and pieces for the stage. He was a prolific composer in every genre.

English composers throughout the centuries have continued to look to Henry Purcell for inspiration.

Lesson Summary

Henry Purcell was born circa 1659 in London, England. As a boy he was a chorister at the Chapel Royal. He continued to have music appointments at court throughout his life, the most prominent being organist for Westminster Abbey and organist for the Chapel Royal. He composed hundreds of pieces for every conceivable occasion and ensemble, including the Anglican worship service, theater, and private concerts. He is lauded and loved still today and his music is performed around the world.

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