Henry Purcell

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Henry Purcell is seen as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period and one of the greatest of all English composers. His earliest surviving works date from 1680 and show a complete command of musical composition. They include some fantasias for viols, masterpieces of contrapuntal writing, and more contemporary sonatas for violins, which reveal some acquaintance with Italian models. Purcell, in his time, became increasingly in demand as a composer, and his theatre music in particular made his name familiar to many who knew nothing of his church music or the odes and welcome songs he wrote for the court of three different kings over twenty-five years. To begin to chronicle the life of Henry Purcell is a difficult task as there is not much know of the life of the great composer. In the readings this author has done there seems to be as much assumption as fact in the books that hold the biographies of the life of Purcell. Much of the readings look to the events of the time in relation to what was known about Purcell's life during those times such as assuming what the effects the great Black Plague and the fires in London would have on a young lad, no one explains this better than Runciman. What we know of Purcell's life is nothing, or next to nothing; what is written as his life is conjecture, more or less ingenious inference, or pure fiction. In that we know so little of him he is blessed, but the blessedness has not as yet extended to his biographers. At one time a biographer's task was easy: he simply to ok the hearsay and inventions of Hawkins, and accepted them as gospel truth whenever they could not be tested.1

What we do know of Henry Purcell is that he was born probably around 1658 to Henry Purcell the elder, a gentleman of the chapel royal and short term choirmaster of the choristers at Westminster Abbey and where his boyhood is concerned we know not much more to say (Holman, Groves). Purcell was however born into a family of musicians sealing his fate from a very young age. Purcell's father's position among the court and young Purcell's own ability led Henry on his way to his first appointing on June tenth 1673. He was given position as the keeper, maker, mender, repayer and tuner of the regalls, organs virginals, flutes and recorders to the then king of England Charles the second, and under the direction of John Hingston (Westrup 22). This position was one of title and work and not one of monetary compensation. It is important to note that these were just years after the reformation in England wherein Charles the second took up his fathers, Charles the first, position as the new king of the British isles. For a 17th century musician and son of a musician there could be no more of a humiliation than be employed as repairer or tuner of instruments. This humiliation is mostly because it was seen as a career move to working for musicians and not making music. This position like many musicians at the age of fourteen was a mere stepping stone in his musical career. Young Henry's payment came in the form of experience in a vital part of musicianship, caring for ones instrument. It was not as though he was in dire need of the money, his Uncle and guardian since his fathers death in 1664, Thomas Purcell, was as well off as any royal servant could hope to be at the time(Zimmerman, p.32). In addition to Thomas' normal work being a gentleman of the chapel, musician of the lute, viol, and voice he was the groom of the robes and a musician-in-ordinary in succession to Dr. John Wilson. His Uncle also took over the marshal of the corporation of music in 1672 when Captain Cooke reigned on account of illness; these appointments foreshadowed a bright future for young Henry (Westrup p.24). Henry's work as the keeper of the organ must have progressed fast as he was soon promoted to the tuning of the organ of Westminster Abbey and paid a yearly sum of two pounds. This position was given to him by the abbey organist and...
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