Photo: Liam Goldstein
Henry Purcell’s large-scale music represents the pinnacle of his abilities as a composer. There is no greater challenge than to write for soloists, choir, and orchestra, no matter whether the work is for church, court, or the theater. In Purcell’s case, he wrote large works for all of them and was successful in every context.
With a life-long employment as a church musician, Purcell developed a natural sense for setting sacred and devotional texts to music. He was equally adept at composing works that were exuberant and joyous, as well as touching or passionate. The main types of church works he produced were service music and anthems. Purcell is particularly remembered for the numerous anthems that still enjoy frequent performance.
The odes and welcome songs that Purcell composed were the courtly equivalent to his church anthems. They were usually written for significant events such as the king’s return to London, the queen’s birthdays, celebrations of St. Cecilia’s Day, or for some other official occasion like weddings and meetings. The music was generally more festive than its church counterpart.
One memorable ode was the Birthday Song for Queen Mary (composed in 1694). It is the last of six odes written during her reign and is considered the finest. Entitled Come ye sons of art away, the ode uses musical and martial imagery to set the scene for a terrific celebration… all achieving a great effect. Purcell could certainly write catchy tunes.
No exploration of Purcell’s large-scale music is complete without a look at his operas of which, technically, he only wrote one. That is, only one musical work for the theater that was continually sung throughout. Yet, he did compose a number of works in categories known as masque and semi-opera. Whatever you might call them, there are a handful of dramatic compositions that came from his pen which include The Fairy Queen, Dido and Aeneas, King Arthur, Dioclesian, and the Indian Queen.
Purcell’s works have been continually performed since his lifetime and are still very popular with today’s audiences. His songs, in particular, received a boost in the 20th Century when they were rediscovered by English composers Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten, both of whom arranged their favorites for voice and piano.
Tippett’s and Britten’s “realizations,” as they’re called, have become standard repertoire for voice students all over the world. And while musicians of the Early Music movement have gone back to Purcell’s originals, it is fascinating to hear how two prominent 20th-century composers modernized their fellow countryman’s music.