The accession of King Charles II in 1660 not only coincided with the birth of Purcell, but also changed the course of English musical life. The King’s years of exile in France made their mark, and he wished to create a musical climate similar to that at the court of Louis XIV. Purcell’s father was among the musicians employed at the Chapel Royal, and the young Henry trained there with John Blow and Pelham Humfrey. After his voice broke in 1673, he was employed to help maintain the organ and other instruments and to copy out music (by other composers) for performance. His first formal composition came in 1677 for the "Twenty-four violins", the King’s ensemble of stringed instruments, beginning an association that continued over many years.
In 1679 Purcell succeeded Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey, while maintaining his work at the Chapel Royal. For example, he frequently composed large-scale compositions to mark special court occasions, having in 1682 been appointed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. The circumstances of Purcell’s life led him to develop his creative work in four distinct fields: the Italianate Welcome Songs and Odes, music for the English church, instrumental music, and music for the stage. He was prolific and worked with equal success in each of these contexts.
There are no fewer than twenty-four Welcome Songs and Odes, reflecting the advantages of working at court. Yet these were not easy times, since King Charles died in 1685 and the reign of his brother, James II, was not a success; he fled the country in 1689, to be succeeded by William III and Queen Mary. In the circumstances Purcell’s achievement seems more remarkable still. The distinction between the Welcome Songs and the Odes is simple: the former were written for Charles II and James II, the latter for William and Mary. These compositions are ambitious and imaginative, employing several solo voices as well as chorus and orchestra, allowing the musicians abundant opportunities across a range of musical expression, as in the well-known Sound the Trumpet of 1689. The celebrated Ode for Queen Mary and Ode for St Cecilia’s Day find the composer at the height of his powers, as does the music he composed for the Queen’s state funeral, in March 1695, just months before his own death in November.
The majority of Purcell’s compositions for the church were anthems, of which there are more than a hundred. Some employ choir and organ, others soloists with choir and string orchestra. The agility of the vocal parts serves as testimony to the musical standards at the Chapel Royal, and dissonance forms an integral part of the musical style, along with flowing melodies and rhythms and accents related to the text.
Late Servant to his Majesty, and Organist of the Chapel Royal, and of St. Peter's Westminster
Mark how the Lark and Linnet Sing,
With rival Notes
They strain their warbling Throats,
To welcome in the Spring.
But in the close of Night,
When Philomel begins her Heav'nly lay,
They cease their mutual spite,
Drink in her Music with delight,
And list'ning and silent, and silent and list'ning,
And list'ning and silent obey.
So ceas'd the rival Crew when Purcell came,
They Sung no more, or only Sung his Fame.
Struck dumb they all admir'd the God-like Man,
The God-like Man,
Alas, too soon retir'd,
As He too late began.
We beg not Hell, our Orpheus to restore,
Had He been there,
Their Sovereign's fear
Had sent Him back before.
The pow'r of Harmony too well they know,
He long e'er this had Tun'd their jarring Sphere,
And left no Hell below.
The Heav'nly Choir, who heard his Notes from high,
Let down the Scale of Music from the Sky:
They handed him along,
And all the way He taught, and all the way they Sung.
Ye Brethren of the Lyre, and tuneful Voice,
Lament his Lot: but at your own rejoice.
Now live secure and linger out your days,
The Gods are pleas'd alone with Purcell's Lays,
Nor know to mend their Choice.
The music for harpsichord contains eight Suites or Lessons, employing dance forms and thus anticipating the works of later masters of baroque keyboard music. The string music includes trio sonatas, fantasias and the remarkable Chaconne in G minor. The latter is a highlight among Purcell’s compositions, which has become well-known thanks to the arrangement made by one his greatest admirers, Benjamin Britten.
Purcell wrote a great deal for the stage, and during the last five years of his life he composed music for some forty plays. He frequently turned to a hybrid form known as the "semi-opera", a drama in spoken dialogue but containing sizeable musical portions: overtures, interludes, ballets and songs, as in Dioclesian (1690), King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692), the latter a free adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Among Purcell’s strengths in these works is his ability to absorb influences from France and Italy rather than merely to imitate them.
In 1689 Purcell received a commission from Josias Priest, who kept a "School for Young Gentlewomen" in Chelsea, and the task was "to compose the music for an entertainment". The result was the first English opera, Dido and Aeneas, whose virtues arose out of the necessity to compress the plot within a performing time of an hour and to enable Priest’s pupils to be seen and heard to advantage, for example in songs and dances. Even so, a serious mood permeates the opera, because it is dominated by the tragic character of Dido. Her final number, the moving lament When I am laid in earth, is constructed a on a ground bass which is repeated ten times. The vocal line begins with an octave leap and descends step by step as if to emphasise the inevitability of her fate. It is typical of Purcell’s genius that the orchestra frames the aria, both preparing and maintaining its atmosphere.
His frequent collaborator, the poet John Dryden, rightly believed that "in Purcell we have found an Englishman equal with the best abroad". This daring and imaginative composer is among the greatest of the baroque era.