Vittorio Ghielmi - Henry PurcellHenry Purcell, born in 1659 in London, grows up in a highly musical family. His father Henry and uncle Thomas Purcell are members of Charles I’s Chapel Royal, and from his earliest childhood, the young Henry Purcell comes into contact with the most significant musicians and composers (Henry Lawes, Christopher Gibbons, Henry Cooke or Pelham Humphrey) and their work. And after 1661, the year of the coronation of Charles II, who will later be so important to Purcell, both father and uncle remain in service at court. Thomas Purcell looks after the boy’s education following his father’s early death, and has already trained him as a chorister by the age of six, as well as teaching him Latin, and to play the lute, violin and keyboard, as well as composition.
Within a few years Purcell has undertaken all the main duties associated with the King’s Musick, especially as an assistant in the care and maintenance of instruments, but is also pursuing intensive composition studies. Under the protection of John Blow, who assumes the position of organist at Westminster Abbey from 1668, Purcell rapidly matures into a highly developed composer; he is barely 16 years old when, in 1675, he first has an aria of his published.
In 1677 young Purcell is appointed court composer „for the Violins“, in the service of Charles II, who has returned at the end of the 1750s from exile in France, with a pronounced taste for the dance music there, and the associated declamatory style of violin playing. Initially the King’s regulatory wishes and demands restrict Purcell in his work as a composer. But during the Restoration period, London develops as a blossoming cosmopolitan city, in which the King’s encouragement of the arts draws special attention, and attracts musicians from all over Europe, particularly from France and Italy. There’s no doubt that Purcell comes into contact with the new continental styles, and studies them thoroughly. The influence of foreign musicians who now find employment at court, such as the celebrated Giovanni Battista Draghi, refreshes the artistic climate.
Enriched by these varied impressions, and apart from his duties at court and as organist in Westminster, in 1680 Purcell writes several three- and four-part fantasias that present a first highpoint in his work, with their synthesis of English musical tradition and contemporary Italian style and musical language. In these fantasias – a form particularly treasured in England, normally performed by viol consorts or at the keyboard – Purcell shines as a composer, with rich, bold harmonic effects and contrapuntal imitation that create an emotionally highly-charged mood for the listener, and are far removed from musical objectivity or neutrality. The polyphonic web of these short pieces also reminds one of the art of the Italian madrigalists, which Purcell had studied through many years of copying Monteverdi madrigals during his formative years at the Chapel Royal. Three years later Purcell will write another little cycle of “Sonatas in three and four parts”, dedicating them to the King, who is actually known to have an aversion to the viola da gamba.
So the year 1680 marks an important starting point for the future composer of royal odes for three different rulers, as well as anthems, masques, and his only opera “Dido and Aeneas”, still his best-known work, in which he further develops and perfects his own incomparable style.
Purcell dies in London in 1695, aged just 36; in 1726 his friend Roger North writes of him: “A greater musical genius England never had”.
– Regine Vetter (Translation: Richard Toop)