This is the first article in a series devoted to aspects of composers works and lives not generally known by average concert goers. Purcell’s genius, rated by some music critics as being superior to that of Bach, is known by only a mere fraction of his oeuvre. Yet once explored in depth, his music, most admirably his vocal music impresses upon the listener a world far removed from the more systematic works of Baroque and Classical composers. Perhaps these articles will encourage readers to dig further into the life and times of other composers.
My high school band director asked me to conduct Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary on one of our band concerts. I enjoyed the experience and later, whenever I heard the tune, I would recall my conducting debut. Years later I learned musicologists had attributed the voluntary to another British composer and contemporary of Purcell, Jeremiah Clarke who called the work Prince of Denmark March.
About 20 years ago I heard Barbara Hannigan sing Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation. I was taken by an incredible change in the song which after the concert I described to Barbara as madness. Barbara replied,“That’s exactly what happens to her. She is coming to terms with the fact that she is going to be the mother of Jesus Christ”.
I purchased a CD of Purcell’s vocal music with a version of that incredible song. The singer, though very good, did not take the dramatic plunge into madness. Nevertheless those songs introduced me to a Henry Purcell I had never known. For sure he has a way with words, but his ear for melodic lines and inventive use of simple materials continue for me as an ever fresh bouquet of musical delights.
I then purchased one of the finest books on Purcell,titled simply Purcell, by J. A. Westrup. Though out-of-print, it is still available from rare and used book sellers. It was my reading of this book that led me to Purcell’s operas or as they were called in the 17th century, Masques or semi-operas. In these operas one can hear irresistibly fresh and young vocal writing alongside humor in goodly measure.
The first masque I listened to was King Arthur written in 1691 to a text by Dryden. King Arthur is one of Purcell’s greatest works. In Arthur one can hear the hallmarks of Purcell’s orchestral and vocal prowess.
Purcell was born in either 1658 or 1659 in the city of Westminster, London. During his later years he was referred to as Purcell the divine and he is buried next to the organ in Westminster Abbey. The music played at his funeral was the music he had composed eleven months earlier for the funeral of Queen Mary, 1662-94.
One of the shortest works in the Music for Queen Mary’s Funeral is the March for brass and kettledrums. It is also profoundly moving music. I never tire of hearing it and am always touched by the mood it creates and Purcell’s genius.
The recorded performance below is by The Early Music Consort of London conducted by David Munrow, EMI Classics, 7243 5 69270 2 5. Munrow was a brilliant musician and linguist who created a public interest in Early Music. He employed Christopher Hogwood among others. He recorded 50 albums of early music and in 1976 at the age of thirty-two, committed suicide by hanging.