Henry Purcell was born in southern England, probably Westminster in London at some point (date unknown) in 1659. Purcell’s father (also called Henry although the exact parentage of the younger Purcell (with whom we are concerned) is in question)) died and the raising of Purcell was entrusted to Thomas Purcell (probably Henry senior’s brother) who was a tenor voice and composer employed by Charles II.
Under Thomas’ guidance, Purcell was taken into the Chapel Royal as a choirboy and studied (publishing a song for John Playford’s “Musical Companion” called “Sweet Tyranness” aged just eight) under both Pelham Humfrey and John Blow. In 1674 (aged 15) he was appointed as organ tuner at Westminster Abbey and at 18 was promoted to composer-in-ordinary, succeeding Matthew Locke, to the King’s Violins, a Royal band of twenty four string musicians.
In 1679 Purcell’s musicianship finally seemed to have blossomed fully when his former teacher, John Blow stepped down as organist of Westminster Abbey in favour of the still young (20) and clearly precocious performer and composer.
From this point until his early death, aged just thirty six, Purcell composed prolifically for liturgical, theatrical and royal audiences, producing choral, anthemic, keyboard, chamber, opera and semi-opera works. It is however, for his purely instrumental output that he’s best known, displaying an exceptional originality and freedom in melody and notably mindful of the use of dissonance to emphasise important areas of text.
His first major recognised pieces were a collection of “Fantasias” for string instruments composed around 1680 which were formed in the style of the Renaissance polyphonists but with greater emphasis on rhythm and harmony. His compositions matured and broadened quickly and his only true opera “Dido and Aeneas” was completed and performed in 1688 (some authorities suggest the earlier date of 1684). He also gave us five semi-operas including the magical “King Arthur” (or: “The British Worthy”) and “The Fairy Queen”.
Alongside the numerous church and royal compositions, Purcell spent some time writing music for the theatre, producing a very great number of songs, dances and pieces of incidental music for other productions.
This Prelude, Aria and Chorus from Purcell’s semi-opera is interesting for a number of reasons, quite aside from the astounding beauty of the work itself.
The Fairy Queen, although touted as a semi-opera is in reality a series of five masques based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” although the original title is not quoted in the production. The libretto was frequently (historically) quoted as being by Elkanah Settle although this is now in dispute and many documents state that the text for the musical sections of the work are by an anonymous author.
Written only three years before his death and performed first at the Dorset Garden Theatre in May 1692, the original score for the Fairy Queen was lost for over two centuries until a partly autograph (add link) full score was found in the Royal Academy of Music in 1901.
In this scene, Titania has woken and, spellbound by Oberon’s enchantment, has declared her love for Bottom and her infatuation is complemented by a nymph singing of the trials of love.
Purcell composed many pieces for both the church and the English monarchy but this piece for the funeral of Queen Mary II brings everything together in one spellbinding package. Mary died in the early morning of the twenty eighth of December 1694 and her body lay in state in Whitehall until the fifth of March the following year. She was a much loved queen and her funeral was attended by all members of both houses of parliament.
This extended period of mourning for the young queen gave Purcell the opportunity to compose a piece especially for the event, drawing on text from the book of common prayer and musical ideas from previous funeral works along with original ideas.
The initial march was composed for a quartet of Flatt Trumpets (the English Slide trumpet (believed to be a relative of the Sackbut)). The drum or timpani parts heard in modern recordings are inferred as it was a funeral march, being played before the coffin in transit. Some sources state that the march was used first for a production of “The Libertine” by Thomas Shadwell (the poet laureate) in 1692 while others state that the play wasn’t premiered until 1695 or 1696. Some of the confusion can be resolved by the fact that portions of the music were played at Purcell’s own funeral just nine months later.
The piece has become an enduring classic and was famously reworked as the introduction music for Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian drama “A Clockwork Orange”.