When I saw that Purcell was included among the ranks of Bach and Handel, I was initially surprised. When I think of Purcell, I think almost exclusively of baroque opera–specifically Dido and Aeneas. (Side note: Check out Jessye Norman singing “Dido’s Lament” here. Among most singers, I’d say this is what Purcell is best known for.) However, he did write a number of choral anthems that are still often sung in churches and university choirs.
Born in England and trained in the choir of the Chapel Royal, Purcell began serving as composer-in-ordinary to the King in 1677 and organist to Westminster Abbey in 1679. During his time as composer-in-ordinary, he composed operas (all “semi-operas” except for Dido), anthems and birthday odes for Charles II, James II, and William and Mary. In 1690, he began writing theatrical music full-time.
Over the course of his career, he wrote an opera (in which the music is continuous) and several semi-operas (in which the music is not continuous), music for plays, single songs, and various types of church anthems. He was a trained singer (countertenor) and is known for his exquisite and intuitive setting of text. Of Purcell’s text setting, Carol Kimball writes, “He is considered unsurpassed in setting the English language; his music has an unerring sense for depicting human emotions in a real and touching dramatic way, unparalleled for that time and rarely equalled since.”(1) H. Wendell Howard writes, “Purcell is to English sung what Shakespeare is to English spoken.”(2)
Throughout his short life, Purcell was loved and respected as a composer. His contemporary Thomas Tudway described him as “…the greatest Genius we ever had.”(3) Purcell died of unknown causes in 1695 (though most people speculate tuberculosis) and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
I’ll be honest–for a long time, I found Purcell…underwhelming. It all sounded the same–pretty, but repetitive. I really didn’t know what to listen for, but now I believe that part of the reason he is so repetitive is because he sets such poignant texts. (It’s also partly because of the Baroque style, but that’s a whole other post…) Take, for example, “Hear my prayer, O Lord.” The text is based on Psalm 102: 1, and it states, simply, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.” Through the use of both repetition and dissonance between the voices, Purcell builds tension, causing us to empathize with the plea of the Psalmist. Studying Purcell helped me to understand that good composers don’t just repeat things for the heck of it; they repeat things to cause you to feel and to understand the text.
There is so much of Purcell, both sacred and secular, that is worth listening to, but for the purposes of this post, I’m sticking to sacred texts.
“Hear my prayer, O Lord”
(Having sung this one before, I can say that it is my favorite by far.)
So…what are your thoughts? Have you heard a lot of Purcell before? If not, what are your initial impressions? Do you find it easy to worship with this type of music, or do you find it distracting? Please do share!
Bonus: This has nothing to do with Purcell, but I came across it while looking for the Jessye Norman video. Who can resist a Jessye Norman/Kathleen Battle duet?
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
1. Kimball, Carol. Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2006. 357.
2. Howard, Wendell H., cited in Carol Kimball’s Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature.
3. Tuppen, Sandra. The Purcell Society, “Biography of Henry Purcell.” http://www.henrypurcell.org.uk/purcell_biography.html. Accessed July 26, 2011.