Give Now

Harmonia Early Music

A Purcell Celebration, pt. 1

A look at Henry Purcell's small-scale compositions for keyboard, music for string ensembles, and songs.

Play Episode (Real Audio)
painting of man's face

Photo: Wikipedia

A detail from John Closterman's painting of Henry Purcell (National Portrait Gallery, London).

The life of Henry Purcell, although short-lived, was remarkable. He was a prolific composer who worked in the theater, at court, and in church. His birth, nearly three hundred and fifty years ago, was only the beginning for a man who lived to become one of finest composers to the set the English language to music.

The English Restoration

The return of Charles II to the throne in 1660, known as the English Restoration, was the impetus for a young Henry Purcell to grow as a musician. At the time, Purcell was around two years old, but within the Restoration’s first decade he joined the Chapel Royal as a boy chorister. After his voice broke, he remained employed at court in various capacities, including as an assistant instrument and organ technician, as well as a composer for different ensembles and occasions.

Purcell’s main instrument was the keyboard. His main gig from around the age of twenty until the end of his life was as organist to Westminster Abbey. In addition, he also played and composed for the harpsichord, the virginals, and the spinet.

Consort Music

Even though Purcell composed quite a bit of instrumental music, very little of it was published within his lifetime. Of his works for chamber ensembles, only his Sonatas of III Parts were available in publication. Music for the combination of two violins, viola da gamba, and basso continuo was apparently in high demand.

As for his viola da gamba consorts… well, they remained unpublished. Fine works in their own right, Purcell probably never intended them to be more than just personal composition exercises. They are impressive ones at that. Today they are highly regarded and part of every viol consort’s core repertoire.

Orpheus Brittanicus

By far, the most popular compositions by Purcell are his songs. He was an extraordinary composer of songs and without peer when it came to setting the English language to music. A few years after his premature death in 1695, a two-volume publication known as Orpheus Brittanicus came out to great acclaim. In fact, multiple editions succeeded in the initial ones.

Orpheus Brittanicus is a kind of anthology that contains both his very best and most popular secular songs. Voice students and lovers of English song, alike, have all deeply enjoyed sections from it.

Harmonia Sacra

If Orpheus Brittanicus was a collection of Purcell’s secular songs, then Harmonia Sacra was its counterpoint. Published by Henry Playford, Harmonia Sacra was also a two-volume anthology, but of devotional song, filled with compositions by Purcell and several of his contemporaries, containing two of Purcell’s most beautiful songs: Tell me, some pitying angel and An Evening Hymn.

New Release

The new release this week features an old warhorse—three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites. The first in a two volume series of Bach’s complete suites on the MA Recordings label, they are performed by Swiss baroque cellist Martin Zeller who plays on a instrument made in 1673 by Jacobus Stainer.

Zeller is principal cellist of the Kammerorchester Basel and professor of baroque cello at the Zürich Music Academy.

Here’s a video of a live performance of Purcell’s “Golden Sonata,” directed by harpsichordist Beatrice Martin:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcop2S7RVrs

The music heard in this episode was performed by the New Chamber Opera, Gary Cooper, , Davitt Moroney, Fretwork, Catherine Bott, Barbara Bonney, Nancy Argenta, and The King’s Consort.

Music Heard On This Episode

Henry Purcell: Come all ye songsters (Rachel Elliot, soprano) and Now ye night is chas’d away (Deborah York, soprano)
The New Chamber Opera Ensemble/Gary Cooper — The Gresham Autograph: Songs of Henry Purcell (ASV Gaudeamus , 1999)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Come all ye songsters (Rachel Elliot, soprano) and Now ye night is chas’d away (Deborah York, soprano)
The New Chamber Opera Ensemble/Gary Cooper — The Gresham Autograph: Songs of Henry Purcell (ASV Gaudeamus , 1999)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Ground in G gamut, Z.645
The New Chamber Opera Ensemble/Gary Cooper — The Gresham Autograph: Songs of Henry Purcell (ASV Gaudeamus , 1999)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Voluntary for Organ in G major, Z.720
The Purcell Quartet (Catherine Mackintosh and Elizabeth Wallfisch, violins, Richard Boothby, viola da gamba, and Robert Woolley, chamber organ) — Sonatas, vol. 3 (Chandos, 1992)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Miscellaneous pieces on the virginals
Davitt Moroney, virginals and harpsichord — The Purcell Manuscript (Virgin Classics , 1995)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Fourth act tune "Air"
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie — The Fairy Queen (HMC, 1989)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: 5 part Fantazia “upon one note”
Fretwork — Fantazias and In Nomines (Virgin Veritas , 1995)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Sonata no. 9 in F major
The Purcell Quartet (Catherine Mackintosh and Elizabeth Wallfisch, violins, Richard Boothby, viola da gamba, and Robert Woolley, chamber organ) — Sonatas, vol. 3 (Chandos, 1992)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Chaconne
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie — The Fairy Queen (HMC , 1989)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Bess of Bedlam—From silent shades
Catherine Bott, soprano, and Friends — Mad Songs: Purcell, Eccles, and Blow (L’Oiseau-Lyre , 1993)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Oh, fair Cedaria
The King’s Consort/Robert King — Essential Purcell (Hyperion , 1994)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Symphony
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie — The Fairy Queen (HMC, 1989)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: Tell me, some pitying angel
Nancy Argenta, soprano, and Friends — O Solitude: Songs and Airs of Henry Purcell (Virgin Classics , 1994)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Henry Purcell: An Evening Hymn
The King’s Consort/Robert King — Essential Purcell (Hyperion , 1994)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
J.S. Bach: Suite 1 in G major, BWV 1007, Prelude and Gigue
Martin Zeller, baroque cello — Three Suites a Violoncello Solo senza Basso, vol. 1 (MA Recordings , 2007)
album cover
Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

View all posts by this author »

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Harmonia Early Music:

More Subscription Options

Follow Us

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Harmonia Early Music

About The Hosts

Search Harmonia Early Music

where to hear harmonia