Purcell, Henry

, an eminent musician, was son of Henry Purcell, and nephew of Thomas Purcell, both gentlemen of the Royal Chapel at the restoration of Charles II. and born in 1658. Who his first instructors were is not clearly ascertained, as he was only six years old when his father died; but the inscription on Blow’s monument, in which Blow is called his master, gives at least room to suppose that Purcell, upon quitting the chapel, might, for the purpose of completing his studies, becojne the pupil of Blow. Dr. Burney is inclined to think that he might have been qualified for a chorister by Capt. Cook. However this be, Purcell shone early in the science of musical composition; and was able to wrfte correct harmony at an age when to perform choral service is all that can be expected. In 1676, he was appointed organist of Westminster, though then but eighteen; and, in 1682, became one of the organists of the chapel royal.

In 1683, he published twelve sonatas for two violins, and a bass for the organ and harpsichord; in the preface to | which he tells us, that “he has faithfully endeavoured a just imitation of the most famed Italian masters, principally to bring the seriousness and gravity of that sort of music into vogue and reputation among our countrymen, whose humour it is time now should begin to loath the levity and balladry of our neighbours.” From the structure of these compositions of Purcell, it is not improbable that the sonatas of Bassani, and perhaps other Italians, were the models after which he formed them; for as to Corelli, it is not clear that any thing of his had been seen so early as 1683. Before the work is a very fine print of the author, his age twenty-four, without the name of either painter or engraver, but so little like that prefixed to the “Orpheus Britannicus,” after a painting of Closterman, at thirty-­seven, that they hardly seem to be representations of the same person.

As Purcell had received his education in the school of a choir, the natural bent of his studies was towards church music. Services, however, he seemed to neglect, and to addict himself to the composition of Anthems. An anthem of his, “Blessed are they that fear the Lord,” was composed on a very extraordinary occasion. Upon the pregnancy of James the Second’s queen, supposed or real, in 1687, proclamation was issued for a thanksgiving; and Purcell, being one of the organists of the Chapel Royal, was commanded to compose the anthem. The anthem, “They that go down to the sea in ships,” was likewise owing to a singular accident. It was composed at the request of Mr. Gostling, subdean of St. Paul’s, who, being often in musical parties with the king and the duke of York, was with them at sea when they were in great danger of being cast away, but providentially escaped.

Among the “Letters of Tom Brown from the Dead to the Living,” is one from Dr. Blow to Henry Purcell, in which it is humourously observed, that persons of their profession are subject to an equal attraction from the church and the play-house; and are therefore in a situation resembling that of Mahomet’s tomb, which is said to be suspended between heaven and earth. This remark so truly applies to Purcell, that it is more than probable that his particular situation gave occasion to it; for he was scarcely known to the world, before he became, in the exercise of his calling, so equally divided between both the church and the theatre, that neither could properly call him her own. In | a pamphlet entitled “Roscius An^licanus, or an Historical View of the Stage,” written by Downes the prompter, and published in 1708, we have an account of several plays and entertainments, the music of which is by that writer said to have been composed by Purcell.

In 1691, the opera of “Dioclesian” was published by Purcell, with a dedication to Charles duke of Somerset, in which he observes, that “music is yet but in its nonage, a forward child, which gives hopes of what he may be hereafter in England, when the masters of it shall find more encouragement; and that it is 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.” The unlimited powers, says Dr. Burney, of this musician’s genius embraced every species of composition that was then known, with equal felicity. In writing for the church, whether he adhered to the elaborate and learned style of his great predecessors Tallis, Bird, and Gibbons, in which no instrument is employed but the organ, and the several parts are constantly moving in fugue, imitation, or plain counterpoint; or, giving way to feeling and imagination, adopted the new and more expressive style of which he was himself one of the principal inventors, accompanying the voice-parts with instruments, to enrich the harmony, and enforce the melody and meaning of the words, he manifested equal abilities and resources. In compositions for the theatre, though the colouring and effects of an orchestra were then but little known, yet as he employed them more than his predecessors, and gave to the voice a melody more interesting and impassioned than, during the seventeenth century, had been heard in this country, or perhaps in Italy itself, he soon became the darling and delight of the nation. And in the several pieces of chamber music which he attempted, whether sonatas for instruments, or odes, cantatas, songs, ballads, and catches, for -the voice, he so far surpassed whatever our country had produced or imported before, that all other musical productions seem to have been instantly consigned to contempt or oblivion.

It has been extremely unfortunate, says the same author, for our national taste and our national honour, that Orlando Gibbons, Pelham Humphrey, and Henry Purcell, our three best composers during the seventeenth century, were not blest with sufficient longevity for their genius to | expand in all its branches, or to form a school, which would have enabled us to proceed in the cultivation of music without foreign assistance. Orlando Gibbons died 1625, at forty-four. Pelham Humphrey died 1674, at 'twentyseven; and Henry Purcell died 1695, at thirty-seven. If these admirable composers had been blest with long life, we might have had a music of our own, at least as good as that of France or Germany; which, without the assistance of the Italians, has long been admired and preferred to all others by the natives at large, though their princes have usually foreigners in their service. As it is, we have no school for composition, no well-digested method of study, nor, indeed, models of our own. Instrumental music, therefore, has never gained much by our own abilities; for though some natives of England have had hands sufficient to execute the productions of the greatest masters on the continent, they have produced but little of their own that has been much esteemed. Handel’s compositions for the organ and harpsichord, with those of Scarlatti and Alberti, were our chief practice and delight for more than fifty years; while those of Corelli, Geminiani, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Tessarini, Veracini, and Tartini, till the arrival of Giardini, supplied all our wants on the violin, during a still longer period. And as for the hautbois, Martini and Fisher, with their scholars and imitators, are all that we have listened to with pleasure. If a parallel were to be drawn between Purcell and any popular composer of a different country, reasons might be assigned for supposing him superior to every great and favourite contemporary musician in Europe.

Purcell died Nov. 21, 1695, of a consumption or lingering distemper, as it should seem; for his will, dated the 1st, recites, that he was then “very ill in constitution, but of sound mind” and his premature death, at the early age of thirty-seven, was a severe affliction to the lovers of his art. His friends, in conjunction with his widow, for whom and his children he had not been able to make any great provision, were anxious to raise a monument of his fame for which end they selected, chiefly from his compositions for the theatre, such songs as had been most favourably received, and, by the help of a subscription of twenty shillings each person, published, in 1698, that wellknown work, the “Orpheus Britannicns,” with a | dedication to his good friend and patroness lady Howard, who had been his scholar.

He was interred in Westminster-abbey, and on a tablet fixed to a pillar is the following remarkable inscription:

"Here lies

Henry Purcell, Esq.

who left this life,

and is gone to that blessed place!,

where only his harmony

can be exceeded.

Obiit 21mo die Novembris,

anno aetatis suae 37nio,

annoque Domini 1695."


Hawkins and Barney’s Hist, of Music And Dr. Burney in Rees’s Cyclopædia. Seward’s Biograpbiana