This great English musician and composer was the second son of Henry Purcell the elder, who also was a musician of some repute and a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. The younger Henry Purcell is traditionally said to have been born in Old Pye Street, Westminster, in or about 1658. He list his father before he was six years old, and soon afterward was admitted a chorister of the Chapel Royal under Captain Henry Cooke, after whose death, in 1672, he continued under Pelham Humfrey. He is said to have composed anthems while yet a chorister. He may have remained in the choir for a brief period after the appointment of Dr. John bow as successor to Humfrey as Master of the Children, but the probability is that, after quitting the choir on the breaking of his voice, he studied composition under Blow as a private pupil, and so justified the statement on Blow’s monument that he was “master to the famous Mr. H Purcell.”
The precocity of Purcell’s youthful compositions would perhaps not have been so remarkable but for their undoubtedly spontaneous character, and it is by reason of this quality in his music that he stands so far above his contemporaries. As applied to Purcell, the title of “Father of English Music” is merited.
It is greatly to be regretted that the records of his life are so meager. In his own day he was by no means widely known in England, and only a small proportion of his work was published during his lifetime. Throughout his early years Dr. Blow continued a good friend to him. His influence secured Purcell’s appointment as “copyist” at the Abbey, and four years afterward, on Blow’s resignation of the post, the young musician, when barely twenty-four, succeeded his former instructor as organist. During these years anthems, songs, and sonatas flowed in numbers from his facile pen; and his writing, apart from its freshness and independence, gave signs of a rare musical tact, evident in his vocal music from the aptness with which the melody fits the words. Anyone acquainted with Purcell’s songs will understand how the sense of this vigorous and accurate setting of the words led Burney to say that “to his mind Purcell’s vocal music was sometimes as superior to Handel’s as an original poem to a translation.” In 1680, shortly after his appointment as organist to the Abbey (or later, as recent research appears to have shown), Purcell wrote his opera “Dido and Aeneas.” Its first performance was private. The original title runs: “Dido and Aeneas. An Opera performed at Mr. Josiah Priest’s Boarding-School at Chelsea, by young Gentlewomen.” Had he written nothing else, this work would have given him peculiar prominence as an English composer. Here was attempted for the first time an English opera in which the words were sung throughout. In the same year took place another event of importance to Purcell — his marriage; but of his wife we know nothing.
The success of “Dido and Aeneas” led him to turn his attention fro some time mainly to dramatic music, for which his geniuus was so obviously fitted. The best known of his compositions during the next fifteen years are: his music to “The Tempest” (1690), “Diocletian” (1690-the only opera printed in his lifetime), and Dryden’s “King Arthur” (1691). Dryden’s admiration for Purcell was very great, and on one occasion found expression in the couplet:
Sometimes a hero in an age appears,
But scarce a Purcell in a thousand years.
Of the beauty of Purcell’s “Tempest” music it is not necessary to speak. “Come unto these yellow sands” and “Full fathoms five” are songs as easily and as readily admired now as two hundred years ago.
The compposer Matthew Locke, though considerably Purcell’s senior, was one of his most intimate friends. there is a record, in Doran’s “Annals of the Stage,” of the two friends having acted together in public. On one occasion, Doran tells us, Davenant’s “Seige of Rhodes” was performed by a company of amateurs which included Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell.
As if to show that his dramatic labors had in no way impaired his powers in the domain of sacred music, Purcell produced, in the last year of his life, a composition of a singularly solemn and impressive character. This was the music for the funeral service of Queen Mary. Perhaps the most eloquent tribute to its excellence is the fact that the anthem, “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts,” has been used at every choral funeral service that has taken place at Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s since its first production. Dr. Croft, whose Burial Office has in great measure superseded Purcell’s, refrained from composing to these words, on the ground that “Purell’s music was unapproachable,” and incorporated the anthem in question into his own work.
Purcells’ constitution was delicate by inheritance, and had become still further weakened by the strain of late hours necessitated by his professional duties. After a short illness, he died on November 21, 1695. In Westminster Abbey is a tablet to his memory; the inscription, whose authorship has been ascribed, perhaps wrongly, to Dryden, runs: “Here lyes Henry Purcell, Esq., who left this life, and is gone to tat blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.”
We know, as has already been said, scarcely anything of his personality, but he seems to have been of a bright and joyous nature, overflowing with spirits as his music overflows with melody, yet–as is also evident from his music–capable of deep emotion. It was, no doubt, his geniality and an appreciation of merry friendship that gave rise to the stories told of his love of tavern company. Had he in reality been the taproom roysterer that some of these talks would make him, he would scarcely have found the favor he did with men of position and refinement. All his recorded utterances respecting his own work are marked by a scrupulous modesty. He was well aware of the importance of the services he wished to render to English music, but his conviction of the possible development of his work by his successors led him to undervalue his own performance.
His name was not entirely unknown, even in his lifetime, among foreign musicians. Cummings relates his having seen, in a contemporary French manuscript, mention of “M. Poursell”; while Corelli declared that “Purcell would be the only thing worth seeing in England, if ever he should be able to make the journey thither.”
Purcell’s estimate of the position of English music in his time may be seen from the following extract from the dedication of one of his works. “Poetry and Painting,” he says, “Have arriv’d to perfection in this country; Music is but yet in its nonage–a forward child, which gives hopes of what it may be hereafter in England when the masters of it shall find more encouragement. ‘Tis now learning Italian, which is its best master, and studying a little of the French air, to give it somewhat more of gaiety and fashion. Thus being further from the sun we are of later growth than our neighbor countries, and must be content to shake off our barbarity by degrees.”
Though during his lifetime the general public by no means realized the importance of Purcell’s work, his position among his fellow musicians was soon determined. Dr. Tudway, a fellow chorister and lifelong friend of his, says of him: “He had a most commendable ambition of exceeding every one of his time, and he succeeded in it without contradiction; there being none in England, nor anywhere else that I know of, that could come in competition with him for compositions of all kinds.”
Purcell modestly regarded himself as one qualified merely to give a passing impulse to his art; we can now appreciate how fruitful might have been his endeavors had not external influences proved fatal to their development at the hands of those who came after him.
“So far as sheer invention goes,” says a critical writer, “Purcell must rank with the greatest composers of all time. Where he falls below the highest standard is in his inability to give his ideas proper treatment, in his lack of the sense of proportion, in his deficiency in the architectonic side of music–to sum him up in a word, is his provinciality. If we take all the circumstances in which he worked into consideration the wonder is, not that he accomplished so little, but that he accomplished so much.” In his time there were no recognized musical standards to work by. Every many thought for himself, wrote for himself, and judged for himself. There was no one to show him his faults. He was, and must have know perfectly well that he was, a far greater man than any of his contemporaries. Naturally he was exceedingly well satisfied with himself, and probably soon got to think that he was beyond criticism, and that his world ought to be very grateful for anything he chose to give it. Now if he had been well snubbed as a boy, if he had had to work hard under some prosy pedant with his head full of traditions, if he had begun his career with a few thoroughgoing failures, how much better it would have been for him! Nothing would have checked his astonishing power of invention; but the sense of having to live up to the standard of a great past, the knowledge of there being a tribunal of cultivated men to appeal to would have fired him to put nothing but his very best into what he wrote. What he needed above all was an artistic environment, an atmosphere of high thought and intellectual striving–instead of the debauched sensualism of the Restoration.
Purcell’s work falls naturally into three main divisions: his Church music, his theatre music, and his instrumental works. In all three he is far ahead of all the other men of his time, so far as intrinsic excellence is concerned, but he has not the consistent elevation of style of Lulli, nor the clear cut elegance and suave grace of the best Italians. In his anthems he derives directly from Pelham Humfrey, who learned a great deal from Lulli; but Purcell developed the new style of Church music, and blended with it some of the grandeur and dignity of the old polyphonic masters.
For the most part his Church music is of what may be called the Restoration type, in which passages for solo voices, duets, and trios abound, and the share of the chorus is reduced to a minimum. His anthems are strangely unequal. Many of them are written in the jigging jog-trot style which Charles II liked, because he could beat time to it; others are defaced by the taste of the time for quaint musical conceits, as in the famous “They that go down to the sea in ships” which opens with a scale passage for a bass voice descending to the double D, or the curious “The hold all together and keep themselves close,” in which the voices gradually draw closer and closer together till then end upon one and the same note. In others again the search for new methods of expression is carried to childish extremes, and in nearly all the form is loose and slovenly to an unpardonable extent. But there is hardly one that has not some illuminating flash of genius, some point of intense musical beauty that only a master could have devised.
In a different vein, but one strikingly characteristic of another side of Purcell’s genius, is his exquisite spring song, “My beloved spake” an anthem brimming over with bright melody and exquisite sympathy with nature. Never have the freshness and the sweet unrest of Spring been set to music of a more liquid melodiousness than the passage in which Purcell sings of the fig tree putting forth her leaves, and of the vines with their tender grapes that give a good smell.
In a manner allied to that of his anthems, but, as a rule, of greater elaboration, are the many odes which Purcell composed for state and private celebrations. Odes were the fashion of the day, and whether St. Cecilia’s Day was to be celebrated according to the jovial custom of the time, or London Yorkshiremen met for their annual feast, or the King returned to his capital from Newmarket, or the Queen fancied that she was going to have a baby, the occasion required musical celebration. the words of these odes are usually the most dismal pieces of hack work imaginable, but Purcell generally found something in them to fire his genius. The choral parts of these works are often singularly rich and imposing, and are usually more fully developed than in the anthems.
One of the best of Purcell’s odes, that written in 1692 for St. Cecilia’s Day, has been performed in recent years. It is particularly interesting to anyone who wants to understand how Purcell stands in the history of musical development. It shows at once his strength and his weakness in the most unmistakable manner, his brilliant inventive powers, his splendid ideas, and his inability to put them to a proper use. All through the work the composer is hovering between various styles, and everywhere is lack of unity. It is this curious inequality in Purcell’s music that makes it at once so fascinating and so disappointing. At one moment he lifts you to the stars, and the next he dashes you down to earth.
It is perhaps in his music for the theatre that Purcell is most consistently excellent. During the latter part of his career he appears to have ben the regular conductor at the theatre in Dorset Garden, and to have supplied all the pieces presented there with such incidental music as they required. So far as is know, he wrote music for more than fifty plays, in some cases only a song or two. Ony once did he write a real opera, a drama without spoken dialogue, sung from beginning to end, and that was the “Dido and Aeneas” already mentioned. It is, both in its strength and weakness, a good specimen of Purcell’s dramatic music. A great deal of it is childishly helpless, and the music, so far as it expresses anything, only expresses the composer’s inability to express anything at all. But here and there are wonderful passages, which give as complete a proof of Purcell’s natural genius as anything he ever wrote. The close of the opera with Dido’s famous death song and the tender little chorus of Cupid’s is inexpressably touching, and there is a curious note of weird horror in the witch music.
The reception of Purcell’s one opera did not encourage him to repeat the experiment. The taste of the day did not demand purely musical pieces. The convention upon which opera is founded, the substitution of song for speech, has never been appealed to Englishmen as a nation, and from Purcell’s day to our own opera has always been an exotic in their country. the incidental music which Purcell produced with such amazing fertility during his later years is rather a development of the earlier masque music of Lawes and his fellow than of opera as it flourished in France or Italy. Purcell’s melody is thoroughly English in type and contour; it owes nothing to any foreign influence. In the details of musical structure he no doubt owed a good deal to France if not to Italy. From Pelham Humfrey, Purcell undoubtedly learned a good deal about French music, and in all probability the scores of Lulli’s operas, which were published as soon as they were produced, found their way to England. But though one can point to occasional passages which betray external influence, as a whole, Purcell’s theatre music is remarkably original. In all the essential qualities of great music it is singularly strong. It has inexhaustible melody, varied and appropriate, solidity of structure, and even, considering the limited resources available, some attempt at orchestral color.
Apart from a few songs, which have woven themselves inextricably into England’s national heritage of music, Purcell is probably better know to the present generation by his instrumental music than by anything else. And it is here that we find him, if not at his greatest, nevertheless more uniform, more sustained, and perhaps more corresponding to the general ideal of what a great composer should be. The form of his instrumental music is restricted, but within its narrow limits he attained a singularly even level of excellence. if we do not here find the tremendous grandeur or the poignant passion of certain inspired moments of “Dido and Aeneas” and “Diocletian,” we get a far more intimate view of Purcell’s own self, of the exquiaite charm of his personality, and of the lovely serenity of character which endeared him to his contemporaries.
Purcell’s string sonatas are admittedly founded on Italian models, but they have a personal touch which is essentially English. Here, almost more than in anything else that he wrote, we can realize how far Purcell was in front of his age. At times he rises to the majestic breadth of Handel, and in his harpsichord pieces he often suggests the concentrated emotion of Bach. In his instrumental works Purcell is often slight, but rarely trivial; often playful, but never commonplace. To those who look upon music as the supremest means of personal expression given by God to man, rather that as a pleasing concatenation of sounds agreeable adapted for passing an idle half hour, Purcell’s music is especially interesting, since in it are found the germs of all that composers since his day have developed in such amazing fashion. he never, of course, was a writer of program music in the modern sense of the word, but that he used music as a means of expressing his own joys and sorrows, his own hopes and fears, it is impossible for any one who listens with a sympathetic ear to deny. Herein lies the secret of Purcell’s charm, of that fascination which, in spite of countless weaknesses, insufficiencies, and failings, his music still continues to exercise.
Judged from a certain standpoint, Purcell was a failure; indeed the most tragic part of his story is that when he died there was no one to continue his work. Had he lived longer, and had he succeeded in founding a school to carry on the traditions that he had inaugurated with such splendid success, the whole history of English music might have been altered. As it was he left no successor, and when Handel appeared in England, fifteen years after Purcell’s death, he took undisputed possession of the field and turned the course of music in England into an entirely different channel
From the historical point of view Purcell’s achievement remains a monument of sterile endeavor, yet his career is one which his countrymen can still regard with pride, and his personality still speaks to all who have ears to hear and souls to appreciate the meanings that music conveys.