Purcell, Henry

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Purcell, Henry

Henry Purcell (pûr´səl), c.1659–1695, English composer and organist. Often considered England's finest native composer, Purcell combined a great gift for lyrical melody with harmonic invention and mastery of counterpoint. He sang in the choir of the Chapel Royal until 1673 and became organist there in 1682. In 1677 he was appointed composer for the king's band, and from 1679 until his death he was organist at Westminster Abbey. His sole opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689), is an early masterpiece of the form. It is remarkable for its dramatic characterization, poignant melodies, and adherence of the music to the genuine rhythms of English speech. His other notable stage works include the masque The Fairy Queen (1692), based on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and music for Dryden's King Arthur (1691). Purcell also excelled at writing songs for public occasions, including several odes for St. Cecilia's Day and his famous birthday ode for James II, Sound the Trumpet. In his vocal music Purcell often employed the device of the ground bass, in which a bass melody is repeated while the upper parts pursue variations. He also composed outstanding instrumental works and music that is secular in tone for the English church service. Purcell invigorated English music with Italian and French elements, creating at the same time a distinctively English baroque style. His importance in English musical life was overshadowed only by that of Handel, in whose choral works there are strong reflections of Purcell's influence.

See biographies by J. A. Westrup (1947) and F. B. Zimmerman (1967).

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