Purcell, Henry

Purcell, Henry an English composer of great note, celebrated especially as the author of church music, was born at Westminster in 1658. He was the son of a musician attached to the chapel of Charles II. At the age of six, having lost his father, he was admitted into the choir of boys at the royal chapel. His masters were Cooke, Pellham, Humphrey, and Dr. Blow. He was remarkable for precocity of talent, but, what was better, he seconded the liberality of nature by his zeal and diligence. His progress was so rapid that, while still a member of the choir, he produced several anthems of his own composition, which were eagerly sought for almost as soon as written; and at eighteen he received the fullest recognition of his ability, by being chosen organist of Westminster Abbey (1676) to succeed Dr. Christopher Gibbons. In 1682, Purcell was given the place of organist of the royal chapel, and this position he held until his death, in 1695. Purcell is the first English composer who introduced the use of various instruments in the church to support the voice, which, until then, the organ had alone accompanied. The original character of his music, the variety of its forms, the majesty of style which governs all his works — principally his Te Deum and his Jubilate — extended the renown of Purcell throughout Great Britain. Although English writers are extravagant in their eulogies in comparing Purcell to Scarlati and to Keiser, yet he is doubtless the greatest composer England has produced. He has treated of all kinds of music, and upon all has impressed the seal of his greatness. One is astonished at the great fruitfulness of his genius, when it is considered how young he died. It is said of Purcell that "his anthems far exceed in number those of any other composer, and would alone have furnished sufficient employment for a moderately active mind and a life of average duration." It is to be regretted, however, that his ambition was boundless. He attempted dramatic music, for which the vividness of his imagination and the fertility of his invention remarkably fitted him; but he had been reared in the midst of religious influences, and if confined to ecclesiastical music would have stood out as its curator and propagator in the modern Church. His efforts in several directions weakened any one line he undertook to cover, and he failed to attain that perfection which alone entitles to enduring greatness. His own countrymen so greatly revered his memory that they buried him in the mausoleum of their greatest. He rests in the north transept of Westminster Abbey. His epitaph was composed by Dryden. A part of the music written for the theatre has been published in the collection of Airs composed for the Theatre and on other Occasions, by Henry Purcell (Lond. 1697). All his sacred works, which have retained their place to the present day, and include fifty anthems, besides the Te Deum and Jubilate, with orchestral accompaniments, a complete service, and a number of hymns and psalms, have been collected by M.Vincent Novello, who has published them in seventy-two numbers, under the title of Purcell's Sacred Music (Lond. 1826-36). This publication is preceded by a notice of the life and works of the composer and his portrait. See Ambros, Gesch. der Musik (Leips. 1878, 8vo), vol. 4.

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