Henry Purcell

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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Henry Purcell: Selected full-text books and articles

Henry Purcell By Peter Holman Oxford University Press, 1994
Henry Purcell & the Restoration Theatre By Robert Etheridge Moore; Sir Jack Westrup Harvard University Press, 1961
Performing the Music of Henry Purcell By Michael Burden Clarendon Press, 1996
Henry Purcell By Dennis Arundell Oxford University Press; H. Milford, 1927
Purcell By J. A. Westrup J. M. Dent and Sons, 1937
The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology By William Weber Clarendon Press, 1996
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Modern Classics: Corelli and Purcell"
Music and the Politics of Culture By Christopher Norris Lawrence & Wishart, 1989
Librarian's tip: "The Heroism of Henry Purcell: Music and Politics in Restoration England" begins on p. 20
Composers of Yesterday: A Biographical and Critical Guide to the Most Important Composers of the Past By David Ewen; David Ewen H. W. Wilson, 1937
Librarian's tip: "Henry Purcell, 1658-1695" begins on p. 344
A Musical Companion: A Guide to the Understanding and Enjoyment of Music By John Erskine Alfred A. Knopf, 1935
Librarian's tip: "England: Purcell. Germany" begins on p. 202, "Purcell" begins on p. 289, and "From Purcell to Wesley" begins on p. 291
Greatness in Music By Alfred Einstein; César Saerchinger Oxford University Press, 1941
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Henry Purcell's work begins on p. 205
An Outward Show: Music for Shakespeare on the London Stage, 1660-1830 By Randy L. Neighbarger Greenwood Press, 1992
Librarian's tip: "The 'Purcell' Tempest" begins on p. 75
A Biographical Dictionary of Old English Music By Jeffrey Pulver Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1927
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Henry Purcell begins on p. 382
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.