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Henry Purcell Edit Profile

composer , organist

Henry Purcell was a British composer and organist most remembered for his more than 100 songs, the miniature opera Dido and Aeneas, and his incidental music to a version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called The Fairy Queen. He was the only great figure of English opera until recent times. In all his works he achieved a happy merger of English traditional styles with the new baroque principles from Italy.


Henry Purcell was probably born on September 10, 1659 in Westminster, then a city separate from London. Son of Henry Purcell, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, he learned early the fundamentals of his art. His parents lived in Great Almonry near the Abbey, until his father died in 1664, at which time the family removed to nearby Tothill Street South. Young Henry was adopted by his uncle Thomas Purcell.


Very little is known of Purcell's schooling. The earliest official document bearing his name is the royal warrant for his dismissal from the Chapel Royal choir, dated December 17, 1673, sometime after his voice had changed. In the Westminster School rolls a Henry Purcell, very likely the composer, is named as a scholar. Shortly after his dismissal from the choir, Henry was apprenticed to John Hingeston, Royal Keeper and Repairer of the Instruments.


In 1674 Henry was employed at Westminster Abbey to tune the organ. He also was paid small amounts as a copyist at the abbey. In 1677, upon the death of Matthew Locke, Purcell became a member of the Chapel Royal as composer-in-ordinary for the violins and in 1679 succeeded John Blow as organist at the abbey. By then Purcell had become one of England's most promising composers. In 1677 he set a beautiful and moving elegy to Matthew Locke ("Gentle Shepherds, ye that know") for which he may also have written the text. By the end of 1680 he finished not only almost all the elegant, deeply expressive fantasias and innomines but many of the trio sonatas and early songs as well. Stylistically all these were related to England's musical traditions but owed much to French and Italian models, as Purcell acknowledged in his trio sonatas published in 1683.

On July 31, 1682 Purcell's uncle Thomas died. The following year, perhaps merely as a formality, Purcell was required to take the sacrament of the Church of England in public, an event which may point to some suspicion that he had Papist sympathies. By then, though, he was firmly established as Charles II's chief composer. Among the best-known works from this period were the incidental music for Nathanial Lee's Theodosius, the Service in B-flat Major, the anthems "Rejoice in the Lord" and "They that go down to the sea in ships, " and the song "Bess of Bedlam. "

Purcell's first compositions for James II, who ascended the throne in 1685, reflect a change in style, as may be seen in such works as the coronation anthem "My heart is inditing" and the ode "Why are all the muses mute?" During the three years of James II's reign Purcell's reputation as a songwriter developed rapidly, and scarcely a collection or stage piece came out in London during this time without his participation. Purcell was commissioned to supply music for the coronation ceremonies of William and Mary, which took place on April 11, 1689. Again a change in his music may be detected, for after the Glorious Revolution he turned to opera, to semiopera (a combined opera, stage play, ballet, and masque), and to more impressive sets of incidental music, showing a mastery of dramatic expression which no English composer ever surpassed.

Purcell began the new trend in 1689 with the opera Dido and Aeneas, which contained the moving lament "When I am laid in earth. " He continued thereafter with at least one major dramatic composition each year. In 1690 he produced the heroic semiopera Dioclesian and in 1691 King Arthur, based on John Dryden's play; both operas relate topically to contemporary events. The Fairy Queen was produced in 1692, the incidental music for William Congreve's The Double Dealer in 1693, and the incidental music for The Married Beau in 1694. Purcell died while composing The Indian Queen in 1695.

During Purcell's last years he also wrote a great many other important works, including the Ode to St. Cecilia of 1692, six birthday odes for Queen Mary, the Te Deum and Jubilate in D Major, and a host of songs and dialogues. In addition, he found time to rewrite and revise portions of John Playford's Introduction to the Skill of Music (1694) and to carry out all his official duties as instrument repairer, organist, performer, and teacher.


  • A highly renowned musical figure of his era, Purcell’s compositions covered a wide range of fields including the church, the stage, and the court. He developed his own unique style of English Baroque music characterized by elaborate musical ornamentation and his inventiveness made him one of the most original composers in Europe.



In 1680 Purcell married Frances Peters. The couple had six children of whom four died in infancy. Only a son, Edward, and a daughter, Frances, survived him.

Henry Purcell

Frances Peters

Frances Purcell

Edward Purcell

He became a musician later on.

Thomas Purcell

He arranged for Henry to be admitted as a chorister.