Personalities | Henry Purcell | Early Baroque | Classical

English composer

Henry Purcell was, without doubt, the most distinguished English composer of the seventeenth century. Equally at home writing for the church, the theatre or the court, he also set a number of bawdy catches for which it is likely he also wrote the words.

Unfortunately, little is known about Purcell’s private life. His date of birth is generally believed to have been in 1659, since the inscription on his memorial tablet in Westminster Abbey states that he died on 21 November 1695 in his 37th year. We know that his father and uncle were Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal; he was a Child of the Chapel Royal and served under four monarchs. Purcell married at the age of about 20 and his wife, Frances, bore him seven children; all but two of these died in infancy. He remained in the employment of the royal court until his untimely death at the age of 36.

Purcell’s London

In the latter half of the seventeenth century, renewed vitality had come back into people’s lives after 11 years of Puritanism during the Commonwealth (1649–60). With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, majesty was reinstated by a king who rode in a gilded coach and wore colourful clothes.

London at this time was an agricultural centre surrounded by green fields, and the City itself was still walled. The taverns, alehouses and eating houses, of which there were over 100 in the square mile that constituted London proper, were an integral part of daily life. In the eighteenth century, many of these were replaced by coffee houses.

The principal artery of London was the River Thames, the only main highway. It was quicker to travel by water than on land and boats could be hired at the quay near Palace Yard, Westminster. In the streets the noise was intolerable, with the constant rumble of wooden and iron wheels on cobbled streets, together with the ear-splitting cries of hawkers. Moreover, sanitation was unknown: the gutters were running with effluent and the stench was horrific; chamber pots and slop pails were emptied in the streets without any thought for the passers-by.

Early Years

The Westminster in which Purcell was born was then quite a small place in the parish of St Margaret’s, concentrated around the Abbey Church of St Peter, now known as Westminster Abbey. When Purcell’s father, Henry, died in 1664, his uncle Thomas took responsibility for his nephew’s musical and general education, and young Henry became a Child of the Chapel Royal when he was six years old. He enrolled under the confirmed royalist Captain Henry Cooke, and in addition to learning singing and sight-reading he was given lessons on the lute, theorbo, violin and harpsichord. The first musical composition attributed to Purcell, aged 11, is An Address of the Children of the Chapel Royal to the King, and their Master, Captain Cooke, on His Majesty’s Birthday, AD 1670.

Court Employment

At the age...

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