Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Purcell, Henry

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PURCELL, HENRY (1658?–1695), composer, was a younger son of Henry Purcell, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and ‘master of the children’ of Westminster Abbey, and music copyist there. The father was an intimate friend of Matthew Locke [q. v.] (cf. Pepys, Diary, ed. Wheatley, i. 64); he was buried at Westminster Abbey on 3 Aug. 1664. The name of the composer's mother was Elizabeth. His brother Daniel [q. v.] is noticed separately. A house in St. Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster, is traditionally said to have been the composer's birthplace (cf. Musical Times, November 1895, pp. 734–5). The date of his birth is fixed approximately by the inscription below his portrait in his ‘Sonatas of Three Parts’ (1683)—‘ætat. suæ 24’—and by that on his monumental tablet in Westminster Abbey, which gives his age as thirty-seven at the time of his death. The arms on the portrait (barry wavy of six argent and gules, on a bend sable three boars' heads couped of the first) seem to connect the composer with the family of Purcell of Onslow, Shropshire (cf. Collectanea Top. et Gen. vii. 244, viii. 17, 20). The composer's uncle, Thomas Purcell, adopted him on his father's death in 1664, and seems to have undertaken his musical education. Thomas Purcell was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal (appointed probably at the Restoration), succeeded Henry Lawes as one of the king's musicians in ordinary for the lute and voice in 1662, held the post of composer in ordinary for the violin conjointly with Pelham Humfrey [q. v.], and died in 1682.

In 1664, when Henry was six years old, he was appointed a chorister of the Chapel Royal, under Captain Cooke, the master of the children. Pelham Humfrey succeeded to Cooke's post in 1672, and from him Purcell learnt the taste for the new style of music which Lully had brought into vogue in France. In his twelfth year (1670) he composed an ‘Address of the Children of the Chapel Royal to the King,’ which, according to Cummings's ‘Life,’ was formerly in the possession of Dr. Rimbault. As it is described as being in Pelham Humfrey's writing, it would appear that Humfrey had already conceived a certain admiration for the promise shown by Purcell before they entered into the relations of master and pupil. Those who ascribe to Purcell the composition of the famous ‘Macbeth music,’ commonly known as Matthew Locke's, are compelled to assign its composition to Purcell's fourteenth year, since it was produced in 1672. The main argument in Purcell's favour is that the music for ‘Macbeth,’ with which Locke's name has been traditionally associated, is wholly different from some other extant music for ‘Macbeth’ which Locke is positively known to have composed, and may therefore be safely denied to be from Locke's hand. When Locke's claim is ignored, Purcell's title seems plausible. That a score of the music in Purcell's handwriting exists is in itself, having regard to the frequency with which one man would make a copy of another's work, no conclusive argument for his authorship (Musical Times, May 1876; Concordia, 27 Nov. 1875; Cummings, Life of Purcell; Grove, Dict. ii. 183–5) [cf. arts. Locke, Matthew, and Leveridge, Richard]. It is possible that a song, ‘Sweet Tyranness,’ in Playford's ‘Musical Companion’ (1672–3) is by the younger Henry Purcell; it has been ascribed to his father.

Purcell's first undoubted work for the stage was written for Shadwell's ‘Libertine’ (1676); the music is considerable in extent, and very fine in quality. Dryden's ‘Aurengzebe’ and Shadwell's ‘Epsom Wells,’ played in the same year, were also provided with music by Purcell. Rimbault assigns to Purcell the music in the first act of ‘Circe,’ by Charles Davenant [q. v.], which was acted at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1677, with music mainly contributed by John Banister [q. v.] (Concordia, 15 April 1876; cf. Rimbault, Ancient Vocal Music of England). The most important of Purcell's early dramatic productions is the masque in Shadwell's arrangement of ‘Timon of Athens’ (1677–8), which contains some of his best and most original work. From 1676 to 1678 Purcell was copyist at Westminster Abbey, and in 1677 he wrote an elegy ‘on the death of his worthy friend Mr. Matthew Locke, musick composer in ordinary to his majesty.’ A letter (printed in Cummings's ‘Life’) written by Thomas Purcell to John Gostling [q. v.], the bass singer, minor canon of Canterbury, on 8 Feb. 1678–1679, is interpreted to mean that Henry Purcell was then writing anthems specially intended to show off Gostling's wonderful voice. But the most remarkable of Purcell's anthems, ‘They that go down to the sea in ships,’ was written later.

The work which in some ways is the crowning manifestation of Purcell's genius, viz. the opera ‘Dido and Æneas,’ has been conclusively proved to date from 1680, not earlier, and for a composer of twenty-two the feat is sufficiently surprising. At the time continuous dramatic music was unknown in England, and Purcell wrote his opera entirely without spoken dialogue, and with a sense of dramatic truth that was not surpassed by any succeeding musician for many generations. It was prepared for a performance given at the boarding-school of one Josias Priest, a dancing-master who in 1680 removed from Leicester Fields to Chelsea. The libretto was by Nahum Tate, and an epilogue by Tom D'Urfey was spoken by Lady Dorothy Burk.

In the same year (1680) John Blow [q. v.] resigned his appointment as organist of Westminster Abbey in Purcell's favour; and two ‘Welcome Songs,’ for the Duke of York and the king respectively, seem to have brought the composer into notice at court. Compositions of this ‘occasional’ kind were written by Purcell almost every year from this time until his death. In 1682 he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, while still retaining his post at the abbey. In 1683 he published by subscription his ‘Sonnatas of III Parts: Two Viollins and Basse: to the Organ or Harpsecord.’ In the title Purcell is styled ‘Composer in ordinary to his most Sacred Majesty,’ an appointment which Rimbault conjectures he received in the same year as that to the Chapel Royal (Old Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal). The (twelve) sonatas were published in four part-books, with an admirable portrait of the composer, a dedication to the king, and a very interesting preface, in which Purcell declares his object to be to give a ‘just imitation of the most fam'd Italian masters; principally, to bring the seriousness and gravity of that sort of Musick into vogue and reputation among our countrymen, whose humor, 'tis time now, should begin to loath the levity, and balladry of our neighbours.’ The last words doubtless refer to the superficial style of the French music of the day, which had not been without previous influence on the composer. A phrase in the dedication implies that it was through the king that Purcell became acquainted with the Italian composers. The suggestion is corroborated by the fact that a manuscript in the Royal College of Music, which contains a number of vocal works transcribed from a manuscript in Purcell's handwriting, includes a duet, ‘Crucior in hac flamma,’ by Carissimi, who was Charles II's favourite composer. The special model taken by Purcell appears to have been Giovanni Battista Vitali, whose sonatas, printed at Bologna in 1677, show a striking similarity to those of the English master in the structure of the works, as distinguished from the loosely grouped ‘suites’ of dance movements and from the ‘fantasies’ which had been in vogue in England from the time of Orlando Gibbons. Of these ‘fantasies’ Purcell left in manuscript several specimens, mainly three years older than the sonatas. The Italian indications of time, &c., employed were then so much of a novelty in England that it was deemed advisable to explain them in the preface to the sonatas. Purcell's admiration for Vitali is attested by the fact that he named his eldest son after him ‘John Baptista’ in 1682.

Purcell began in 1683 a series of odes for the celebration of St. Cecilia's day. It would seem that he wrote for that year's festival no fewer than three, one to Latin words; only one apparently was performed; it begins, ‘Welcome to all the pleasures,’ and was published in the following year. In 1684 Purcell took part in an organ competition at the Temple Church, playing, with Blow, on Father Smith's organ; the rival instrument, by Renatus Harris [q. v.], being played by Draghi. At the time of the coronation of James II, Purcell was paid 34l. 12s. out of the secret-service money for superintending the erection of an organ in Westminster Abbey specially designed for the occasion. Purcell probably played the organ at the opening ceremony. The ‘Purcell’ who is mentioned among the basses of the choir was presumably a relative. The composer's voice was a counter-tenor.

In 1686 he returned to dramatic composition with the music to Dryden's ‘Tyrannic Love,’ while a ‘quickstep,’ apparently written about the same time, obtained extraordinary popularity as the air of ‘Lilliburlero.’ The year 1687 is marked only by an elegy on John Playford [q. v.], the music publisher. In January 1687–8 Purcell wrote an anthem, ‘Blessed are they that fear the Lord,’ for the rejoicings at the queen's pregnancy, and another anthem, ‘The Lord is King,’ bears date 1688. He contributed songs to D'Urfey's ‘Fool's Preferment’ in the same year, and resumed the office of copyist in the abbey.

At the coronation of William and Mary in 1689, Purcell retained, as an official perquisite, the price paid for seats in the organ-loft; but he was apparently compelled to give it back to the chapter on pain of losing his post (Hawkins, edit. 1853, p. 743). One of the best of the ‘occasional’ compositions of Purcell was called forth by the accession of the new sovereigns, though it was not commanded for any state celebration. It is known as ‘The Yorkshire Feast Song,’ and was performed at the meeting of natives of Yorkshire in the Merchant Taylors' Hall on 27 March 1690. There followed some of the composer's best theatrical work, including ‘Dioclesian, or the Prophetess’ (adapted from Beaumont and Fletcher by Betterton), and the ‘Tempest’ (Dryden's adaptation). The former was published in 1691 in score by subscription, with a dedication to the Duke of Somerset; but, although the piece was a great success (Downes), the cost of publication was hardly defrayed by the subscriptions, and the book was a financial failure (pref. to Daniell Purcell's Judgment of Paris); every copy contained manuscript corrections by Purcell himself. The music to Dryden's ‘Amphitryon’ was issued in 1690, the year of its production. In the epistle dedicatory Dryden wrote, ‘We have at length found an Englishman equal with the best abroad,’ and he referred to ‘his happy and judicious performances in the late opera’ (‘Dioclesian’). Five years earlier, in the preface to ‘Albion and Albanius,’ Dryden had shortsightedly spoken of Grabu, the composer of that work, as ‘raised to a degree above any man who shall pretend to be his rival on our stage.’ This change in the poet's opinion was strengthened by Purcell's admirable contributions to his opera of ‘King Arthur,’ which was produced in 1691. The complete score of that work was never published, and it disappeared, probably within a very few years of its production, since the few songs printed after the composer's death, in ‘Orpheus Britannicus,’ were in a more or less fragmentary condition. After all the imperfect manuscript scores of the work were collated for Professor Taylor's edition (Musical Antiquarian Society), there remain five songs to which no music can be found. Still, the great bulk of the music is extant, and from this and the printed play it is clear that it can only be called an opera in a limited sense, since the singing characters are quite subordinate to the others. The abandonment of the old practice of continuous music in opera, which ‘King Arthur’ illustrated, was justified, according to the ‘Gentleman's Journal’ for January 1691–2, by the fact that ‘experience hath taught us that our English genius will not rellish that perpetuall singing.’ ‘Mr. Purcel,’ the same critic pointed out, ‘joyns to the delicacy and beauty of the Italian way the graces and gayety of the French composers, as he hath done for the “Prophetess” and the last opera called “King Arthur,” which hath been plaid several times the last month.’

Among the plays to which Purcell contributed incidental music in 1692 and the following year were the ‘Indian Queen’ (adapted from Howard and Dryden) and the ‘Fairy Queen,’ an anonymous arrangement of ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’ Some of the songs from the latter were published in 1692 by Purcell himself, but, as in the case of ‘King Arthur,’ the complete music was lost (London Gazette, 13 Oct. 1700). Three years after the production of the ‘Indian Queen’ a pirated edition was issued by the booksellers May & Hudgbutt, who addressed the composer in a complacent and impudent preface. The queen's birthday ode for 1692 contains, as the bass of one of the airs, the Scottish tune ‘Cold and Raw.’ According to Hawkins, Purcell introduced it out of pique because the Queen had expressed a preference for the ballad, as sung by Arabella Hunt, to some of his music. The ode for St. Cecilia's day in the same year contains evidence of the composer's powers as a singer of florid music. The air ‘'Tis Nature's voice,’ for counter-tenor, which abounds in elaborate passages, was printed shortly after the festival. The ‘Gentleman's Journal or Monthly Miscellany’ for November 1692 says ‘the second stanza’ was ‘sung with incredible graces by Mr. Purcell himself.’ An ode, said to have been written for the centenary commemoration of Trinity College, Dublin, and performed at Christ Church, Dublin, on 9 Jan. 1693–4, is included by Goodison in his incomplete edition of Purcell's works; but no direct evidence of its performance has been found.

To 1694 belongs Purcell's only work as a theorist. He rewrote almost entirely the third part of Playford's ‘Introduction to the Skill of Musick’ for the twelfth edition of that book, published in 1694. The section ‘On the Art of Descant’ in its original shape was no longer of practical use to composers, since the whole aspect of music had changed. Certain of the songs in the first and second parts of D'Urfey's ‘Don Quixote’ (1694) were by Purcell, the most famous of them being ‘Let the dreadful engines;’ and on St. Cecilia's day, in the same year, were performed his famous Te Deum and Jubilate, with orchestral accompaniments. For the funeral of Queen Mary he wrote a well-known burial service, of which one section, the anthem ‘Thou knowest, Lord,’ has been continuously in use until the present day; it was incorporated by Croft in his setting of the service. In a volume of thirty-six odes and monodies in memory of the queen there are three set to music, one by Blow, and two, to Latin words, by Purcell. Of the music to plays written by Purcell in 1695, the last year of his life, the most important compositions are ‘Bonduca,’ adapted from Beaumont and Fletcher, and the third part of ‘Don Quixote,’ which, though it failed on the stage, became famous from its containing the song ‘From rosy bowers.’ This is said to be ‘the last song the author sett, it being in his sickness;’ a similar claim put forth for ‘Lovely Albina’ may be rejected.

Purcell died on 21 Nov. 1695, probably at his house in Marsham Street, Westminster (Prof. J. F. Bridge in Musical Times, November 1895). The tradition reported by Hawkins, that the composer caught cold from being kept waiting for admittance into his house, his wife being determined to punish him for keeping late hours, is generally discredited. A consumptive tendency is surmised, and some support is given to the supposition by the deaths in infancy of three of the composer's children—in 1682, 1686, and 1687 respectively. He was buried on 26 Nov. beneath the organ in Westminster Abbey. The Latin epitaph on the gravestone was renewed in 1876. On a pillar near the grave is a tablet, with an inscription, placed there by a pupil of Purcell—Annabella, wife of Sir Robert Howard, the dramatist, who probably wrote the inscription. The short will, made on the day of the composer's death, was proved by the widow, Frances Purcell, the sole legatee (cf. Wills from Doctors' Commons, Camd. Soc. p. 158).

That Purcell was a most learned musician, consummately skilled in the exercise of feats of technical ingenuity, and delighting in them for their own sake, is amply shown in his canons and similar works; in particular he excelled in writing, upon a ground bass, music that was not merely ingenious, but in the highest degree expressive. The crowning instance of his powers in this direction is the death-song of Dido in his first opera, an ‘inspiration,’ as it may well be called, that has never been surpassed for pathos and direct emotional appeal. The instructive comparison of this number with the ‘Crucifixus’ of Bach's Mass in B minor—a composition of a design almost precisely similar (see preface to the Purcell Society's edition of ‘Dido and Æneas’)—shows what a point of advance had been reached by the Englishman five years before the birth of the German master. It was this directness of expression rather than his erudition that raised Purcell to that supreme place among English composers which has never been disputed. The very quality of broad choral effect which has been most admired in Handel's works was that in which Purcell most clearly anticipated him; in actual melodic beauty, Purcell's airs are at least on a level with Handel's, while the mere exhibitions of vocal skill for which Purcell is sometimes reproached compare very favourably with the conventional opera songs of Handel. When it is remembered that Purcell lived at a time when the new art of monodic writing, as opposed to the elaborate involutions of the madrigalian period, was only beginning to be understood in England, the flowing ease of his melodies, and the mastery displayed in their treatment, must appear little short of marvellous. That it is difficult if not impossible to trace any process of development between his earlier and later works seems strange, until it is pointed out that a space of twenty years covered his entire career as a composer (or twenty-five years, if we accept the theory that the ‘Macbeth’ music is his).

A very small number of Purcell's compositions were published during his lifetime. Songs by him appeared in various collections published by Heptinstall, Playford, and others, and occasionally, as in the case of ‘Theodosius,’ ‘Amphitryon,’ the ‘Fool's Preferment,’ the ‘Indian Queen,’ the ‘Fairy Queen,’ and ‘Don Quixote,’ songs from the plays, professedly complete, were printed either separately or together with the text of the piece. The only works of any magnitude printed in the composer's lifetime were the three-part sonatas (1683), the St. Cecilia ode for that year, published in 1684, and the opera ‘Dioclesian.’ To these were added, after his death, ‘A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinett’ (1696), the ‘Te Deum and Jubilate,’ a book of ‘Theatre Ayres,’ the ‘Ten Sonatas of Four Parts,’ including the famous ‘Golden Sonata’ (1697) and the first book of ‘Orpheus Britannicus,’ a collection of the composer's most famous songs. A second book of this collection was printed in 1702. The second edition of the two books appeared in 1706 and 1711 respectively, and a third, of both together, in 1721. The rarity of this last edition would seem to imply that it was not a large or successful one, and it is not hard to assign the reason. The popularity of Purcell among all classes of the community had been greater than that enjoyed by any native musician up to that time; but by the second decade of the eighteenth century the vogue of Handel, who absorbed many of Purcell's characteristics, was so well established that Purcell's works were for the time thrown into the shade. Yet Purcell was never neglected by the higher class of musicians in England, and the two-hundredth anniversary of his death was worthily celebrated in London in November 1895 by a festival occupying three days, and including a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. From time to time efforts have been made to publish his music in a way worthy of the greatest composer England has produced. Besides the selections issued by Goodison, Clarke, Corfe, Arnold, and others, the edition of his sacred music in four folio volumes, by Vincent Novello, deserves first mention. All his anthems (with the exception of a few that have come to light since), a large number of hymns, canons, &c., are included in this publication (1829–32). Several of the most important dramatic works and the St. Cecilia ode of 1692 were issued in 1840–8 by the Musical Antiquarian Society. In 1878 an association called the Purcell Society was formed with a view to issuing a really complete edition; the work is progressing slowly; five volumes—all admirably edited—have appeared.

The works of Purcell may be summarised as follows: Seventy-nine anthems, hymns, and services; thirty-two odes and welcome songs, including those on St. Cecilia's day; fifty-one dramatic works, including operas, incidental music, and songs—including the doubtful ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Circe’ music; many fantasias in manuscript for strings (see Addit. MS. 30930 for twenty complete instrumental compositions); twenty-two sonatas (trios) published; one violin sonata (manuscript); two organ toccatas; many harpsichord pieces (thirty-four published in ‘A Choice Collection,’ and twelve [with Blow] in ‘Musick's Handmaid’); numerous songs, catches, and canons.

Purcell's portrait was painted once by Kneller and twice by Clostermann, and a bust of Purcell was formerly in the Music School, Oxford, but has disappeared. Kneller's portrait is now in the possession of Alfred Littleton, esq. It is a somewhat idealised head of a young man, with prominent eyes and full firm mouth; it was engraved by W. Humphreys, from a drawing by Edward Novello, for Novello's edition of Purcell's ‘Sacred Music.’ A drawing of a head, by Kneller—doubtless a sketch for the finished picture—was in the possession of Dr. Burney, and is now in the British Museum; it was engraved by J. Holloway in 1798, and again by J. Corner. Of Clostermann's two portraits, one—a three-quarter-length—in the possession of the Ven. Archdeacon Burney, represents the composer seated at the harpsichord (a replica is in the possession of Miss Done); and the other, of which there is a mezzotint by Zobel in the collection of the Royal Society of Musicians, shows a face much thinner and longer than that of the other portraits, and represents Purcell in the last year or two of his life. A fourth portrait of Purcell, by an unknown author, in the board-room of Dulwich College, was formerly considered to represent Thomas Clark, organist of the college. Two other portraits, said to have been formerly at Dulwich College, have vanished, one of Purcell as a choir-boy (Groves, Dict. iii. 51), and the other of him in later life, from which the engraving by W. N. Gardiner, after S. N. Harding, in Harding's ‘Biographical Mirror,’ 1794, is said to have been made. Other engravings by R. White are in the sonatas of 1683, representing Purcell in his twenty-fifth year, and (a head after Clostermann) in ‘Orpheus Britannicus.’ H. Adlard engraved a portrait (either after Clostermann or possibly from the bust). A head in an oval is in the ‘Universal Magazine’ (December 1777), ‘from an original painting,’ but apparently from White's engraving of 1683.

Purcell married before 1682. A son, John Baptista, was baptised in Westminster Abbey on 9 Aug. of that year, and was buried in the cloisters on 17 Oct. following. Two other sons died in infancy, and his youngest daughter, Mary Peters (b. 1693), seems to have died before 1706. Only two children—a son and daughter—reached maturity. The daughter, Frances (1688–1724), who proved her mother's will on 4 July 1706, married, about 1707, Leonard Welsted [q. v.], the poet; their daughter died in 1726. Purcell's surviving son, Edward (1689–1740?), competed twice, without success, for the post of organist at St. Andrew's, Holborn, formerly held by his uncle, Daniel Purcell, and in 1726 was made organist of St. Margaret's, Westminster. He was also organist of St. Clement's, Eastcheap, and one of the first members of the Royal Society of Musicians; he is believed to have died in 1740. Edward's daughter Frances was baptised on 4 May 1711 at St. Margaret's, Westminster; his son, Edward Henry Purcell, who was one of the children of the Chapel Royal in 1737, was organist of St. John's, Hackney, from 1753 to 1764.

[Purcell, in the Great Musicians Series, by W. H. Cummings, is the most complete biography that has yet appeared; see also Grove's Dict. of Music, ii. 183, iii. 46–52; Hawkins's Hist. ed. 1853, pp. 743–5; Old Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal, ed. Rimbault; Chester's Westminster Abbey Registers; Pedigree of Purcell family in Visitations of Shropshire; Downes's Roscius Anglicanus; Companion to the Playhouse, vol. ii.; Advertisements in London Gazette, &c.; Musical Times, November and December 1895; prefaces and compositions in Musical Antiq. Soc. and Purcell Soc. editions; printed and manuscript compositions in Brit. Mus., Royal Coll. of Music, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, private collections, &c.; Gentleman's Journal and Monthly Miscellany, 1692; Cat. of Portraits in the Music and Inventions Exhibition, 1885, and in the exhibition of Purcell relics, Brit. Mus. 1895; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. x. 210; information from Mr. W. Barclay Squire.]

J. A. F. M.