Henry Purcell

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Purcell, Henry

(pûr`səl), c.1659–1695, English composer and organist. Often considered England's finest native composer, Purcell combined a great gift for lyrical melody with harmonic invention and mastery of counterpoint. He sang in the choir of the Chapel Royal until 1673 and became organist there in 1682. In 1677 he was appointed composer for the king's band, and from 1679 until his death he was organist at Westminster Abbey. His sole opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689), is an early masterpiece of the form. It is remarkable for its dramatic characterization, poignant melodies, and adherence of the music to the genuine rhythms of English speech. His other notable stage works include the masque The Fairy Queen (1692), based on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and music for Dryden's King Arthur (1691). Purcell also excelled at writing songs for public occasions, including several odes for St. Cecilia's Day and his famous birthday ode for James II, Sound the Trumpet. In his vocal music Purcell often employed the device of the ground bass, in which a bass melody is repeated while the upper parts pursue variations. He also composed outstanding instrumental works and music that is secular in tone for the English church service. Purcell invigorated English music with Italian and French elements, creating at the same time a distinctively English baroque style. His importance in English musical life was overshadowed only by that of Handel, in whose choral works there are strong reflections of Purcell's influence.


See biographies by J. A. Westrup (1947) and F. B. Zimmerman (1967).

Purcell, Henry


Born circa 1659 in London; died there Nov. 21, 1695. English composer and organist.

As a court musician in London, Purcell sang in the Chapel Royal and served as keeper of the instruments, organ tuner, composer for the King’s Twenty-four Violins, church organist, and royal harpsichordist. England’s greatest composer, he was outstanding for his unusual productivity, showing equal mastery in all musical genres and excelling in compositions for the theater. (He wrote the music for approximately 50 theater productions.) His greatest achievement was the opera Dido and Aeneas (1689), based on Vergil’s Aeneid. The first English opera, it was remarkable for its refined lyricism, psychological profundity, dramatic tension, and balanced structure, as well as for the unity of music and libretto. In Dido and Aeneas, Purcell captured the traditions of the English realistic theater, the masque, national poetry, English and Scottish folk songs and dances, and contemporary instrumental music.

Purcell’s other works for the musical stage are called semi-operas. They consist of separate numbers or intermezzi, many of which are developed divertissements in theatrical plays. Purcell composed numerous multipart songs and around 100 solo songs that are similar to folk songs. In his secular songs he carried on the traditions of the English madrigal. Outstanding among his religious and secular choral compositions are the anthems (ceremonial church works based on biblical themes and classified as a type of motet). In his instrumental works Purcell followed the traditions of the Italian violin composers. His fantasias for strings and his triosonatas, as well as his works for organ, are distinguished for their masterful polyphony. His harpsichord pieces, which contain many folk and contemporary melodies (dances, suites, arias, and ground basses), are closely related to pieces by the virginalist and are intended primarily for amateurs.

Although Purcell endeavored to create a national music, his creative work did not establish firm traditions. In Great Britain there is a growing interest in him, owing largely to the work of B. Britten, who published adaptations of a number of the 17th-century composer’s works, including Dido and Aeneas (1951).


Konen, V. “Persell i angliiskaia muzyka.” Sovetskaia muzyka, 1955, no. 10.
Konen, V. “Britanskii Orfei.” Sovetskaia muzyka, 1959, no. 11.
Rozenshil’d, K. Istoriia zarubezhnoi muzyki, fasc. 1, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1973. Pages 323–38.
Zimmerman, F. B. H. Purcell. London-New York, 1967.