Personalities | Henry Purcell | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera

1659–95, English

Henry Purcell was one of the greatest Baroque composers and, as the diarist John Evelyn put it after his death, was ‘esteemed the best composer of any Englishman hitherto’.

Often compared to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), Purcell exercised a similar mastery over many different types of composition – dramatic, sacred, vocal and instrumental. Tragically, like Mozart, Purcell died young, in his mid-thirties, leaving behind a prolific body of work.

From a Musical Family

Purcell came from a musical family. Apart from Henry himself, the most notable member of the family was his younger brother Daniel (c. 1660–1717), who served as organist at Magdalen College, Oxford and at St Andrew’s Church in London. In 1695, the year Purcell died, Daniel sought to follow in his illustrious brother’s footsteps and became a composer of music for the London theatre.

A Brief but Meteoric Career

Purcell began his short but brilliant career as a chorister in the Chapel Royal. He went on to become organ maker and afterwards keeper of instruments to King Charles II in 1683, at a salary of £60 a year. Already Purcell had begun to compose, producing his first instrumental music in 1680 and his first songs three years later. Purcell’s first foray into music for the theatre, Dido and Aeneas, was also his first and only true opera, in that it featured music throughout. Although he never wrote another opera as such, Purcell did not abandon the genre entirely. He wrote songs and incidental music for more than 40 stage plays. In 1690, he contributed a considerable portion of the music to Dioclesian, the first of five semi-operas, providing divertissements, songs, choruses and dances. Dioclesian was followed by King Arthur (1691), The Fairy Queen (1692), The Tempest (c. 1695) and The Indian Queen (1695). Purcell died of consumption at Westminster on 21 November 1695.


1689 Dido and Aeneas
1690 Dioclesian
1691 King Arthur
1692 The Fairy Queen
1695 The Indian Queen
1695 The Tempest, or The Enchanted Isle


1659 Henry Purcell born in London
c. 1668 Becomes chorister in the Chapel Royal
1670 First musical composition in honour of Charles II’s birthday
1674 Appointed as tuner of organ, Westminster Abbey, London
1677 Purcell becomes court composer
1679 Succeeds John Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey
1680 Writes first welcome ode, ‘Welcome, Viceregent’, for Charles II
1680 Completes his fantasies for viols; marries and eventually has six children
1682 Appointed one of three organists at the Chapel Royal
1685 Writes ‘My Heart is Inditing’ for coronation of James II
1689 Writes ode for Queen Mary, ‘Now does the glorious day appear’
1689 Dido and Aeneas premieres in Chelsea
1691 King Arthur is produced
1692 Premiere of The Fairy Queen
1694 ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Jubilate’ are performed for St Cecilia’s Day
1695 Purcell’s music accompanies Queen Mary’s funeral
1695 The Indian Queen appears
1695 Purcell dies from tuberculosis in London, and is buried...

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