Celebrating the 363rd anniversary of the birth of Henry Purcell, born in 1659
Henry Purcell was an English Baroque music composer and musician. He is hailed as the most influential composer from England because his work as a musician spanned stage, church, court, and private musical fields. He was born in London, England on 10th of September in 1659 and died in his birth city in 1695.
During the last third of the 17th century, London was the theater of musical and dramatic innovation. Music, dance and drama were all in vogue during this period and became a means of entertainment for the so-called aristocratic class. In 1671, Thomas Killigrew, manager of the King’s Theater, presented the first English masque. At that time, masque was a form of poetic entertainment that imitated a classical Greek tragedy. Since its inception, masque has changed from a theatrical concept to an artistic genre in its own right. Over time, masque has become more integrated with music and dance than it is with speech. As a result, most composers interested in creating musical works for stage presentation also wrote instrumental pieces as well. One such musician was Henry Purcell (1660-1696), who is often called the father of English musical drama.
While in his youth, Purcell followed the current fashions in music and drama by composing choral works and dance settings for his friend Henry Benney’s opera house. However, as he got older, Purcell’s interests began to shift toward writing sacred choral music instead of secular works. After completing his sacred choral works, Purcell conceived an operatic masterpiece that would become one of his best-known compositions: The Tempest. Although he died before its completion, Purcell’s friend Henry Chapel completed the work after Purcell’s death and dedicated it to the memory of his deceased friend.
Unlike some contemporaries who believed that Shakespeare’s plays were too muddy in language and characterization to be effectively set to music, Purcell believed that musical entertainment could be just as true to Shakespeare’s original intentions as drama performed with speech. In fact, many of his contemporaries agree that musical dramas are truer to the spirit of Shakespeare’s plays than are vocal performances. This is because speech limitations can hamper actors’ characterization whereas musical limitations can hamper actors’ expression but not interpretation. In any case, when The Tempest premiered at Killigrew’s theaters in 1689, critics praised the work and dubbed Purcell ‘the new Milton.’
While some thought that Shakespeare was too earthy to be set to music effectively, others considered other writers from the same period – such as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe – to be more ‘English’ in nature than Shakespeare. Other contemporaries considered Benney’s masques more ‘English’ than Shakespeare since they had less Shakespearean elements than did Shakespeare’s plays. They felt that these elements had been present in Elizabethan culture but merely reflected by common people rather than by the aristocracy itself. To demonstrate their point, they would reference contemporary plays such as Webster’s very popular The White Devil- or The Spanish WNever-Trumpeted Ghost-Seen Every Night Since It Arrived at Court! By comparison, these contemporaries would assert that Shakespeare merely reflected popular culture while these others reflected more refined tastes in artistry and characterization.
Throughout history many have exalted Henry Purcell as the father of English musical drama for his masterful use of music in presenting play themes based on literary classics such as The Tempest. But some believe that this early British stage work is merely a reflection of what was already popular in Elizabethan society rather than a deviation from popular taste among the nobility itself. Perhaps national characteristics do indeed influence art expression; however, even if they do not exactly dictate artistic expression either way, it does seem apparent from a study of cultural artifacts throughout history that British culture has had a rich heritage in dramatic creation and musical composition alike.
His music become outdated soon after his death and it was in the 20th century that he got a renewed appreciation. He has composed a lot of instrumental works, motets, canons, cantatas, and operas, as well as published a lot of music theory books. His body of work includes sacred music, 27 ballets which at his time blossomed, music for theater and opera. He introduced Tragédie en Musique, a type of opera that tells stories from classical mythology and Italian romantic epics. Armide is considered his masterpiece.
4 thoughts on “Henry Purcell 🎼🎶🇬🇧”
Music historian Charles Burney dubbed Purcell “our musical Shakespeare” and I think no one who knows his compositions would disagree. Happy birthday, Mr. Purcell 🙂
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