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.
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As for his viola da gamba consorts… well, they remained unpublished.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.
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.
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.
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: