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Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Image of the autographed score of the anthem ‘My Heart is inditing of a good matter’

Henry Purcell's autograph score
British Library RM 20.h.8, ff.55v-56
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

This is a manuscript by a man we know little about, except that he was clearly one of the greatest composers England has ever produced: Henry Purcell. It comes from 'My heart is inditing', his longest and most imposing anthem, written for the Coronation of James II in 1685.

Who was Purcell?

In his short life, Henry Purcell (1659-95) was recognised as the foremost English composer of his generation, and he is now regarded as one the country's greatest ever. Though we know only a bare outline of his life and character, he is one of the earliest major English composers to have left a substantial and varied body of autograph music manuscripts.

No records survive of Purcell's early life, and the earliest evidence for his existence is to be found in three warrants issued in 1673. One appoints him assistant to John Hingeston, Keeper of the King's keyboard and wind instruments, and the other two are to provide him with clothing and money after his voice changed and he had officially 'gone from the Chapel' (Chapel Royal), though in reality he must have continued to work and learn in the same circles.

Knowing that Purcell was brought up in the Chapel Royal we can make an informed guess about his early education. He studied under Henry Cooke as a child and then under John Blow, who was to be a vital formative influence and a colleague with whom Purcell seems to have exchanged ideas throughout his life.

There is no doubt that by 1676 or 1677 Purcell was writing ambitious music of his own for Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal. He married Frances Peters in 1680, and two years later began the second stage of his adult career when he was appointed as an organist of the Chapel Royal.

What is special about his music?

Purcell wrote in the baroque idiom of the time, heavily influenced by French and Italian styles: ornate melodies; many independent lines working simultaneously; regular rhythms, which can feel 'chugging' or 'jumpy'; and regular changes of harmony.

What marked him out from his contemporaries was his adventurousness in harmony (for example, the short choral piece 'Hear my prayer O Lord' has some extraordinarily dissonant chords such as minor ninths) and his audacious compositional wizardry (for example, in one of his quartets for strings, one of the instruments plays only one note throughout a whole movement, yet the harmony feels fluid and changing).

As well as keyboard works, string pieces and sacred music for choirs, Purcell wrote 'semi-operas', such as 'The Fairy Queen': peculiarly English works of the time which are half opera and half spoken drama.

Image of Henry Purcell

Purcell's works are generally listed as Z-numbers, after his cataloguer Zimmerman. The list runs into many hundreds.

What are his most famous works?

Purcell's most famous work is not by him at all: the 'Trumpet Voluntary', once mistakenly credited to him but known to have been written by one Jeremiah Clarke.

However, Purcell certainly did write the opera 'Dido and Aeneas', which includes one of the most heart-rending and frequently-sung arias in the repertoire: Dido's Lament. His arrangement of Lillibulero, a traditional rebel Irish song, is the signature music for the BBC World Service.

What does this page show?

This comes from the autograph full score of 'My heart is inditing', Purcell's longest and most imposing anthem, written for the Coronation of James II in 1685.

The piece was performed during that part of the ceremony relating to James's queen, Mary of Modena, and the text on these pages (‘at his right hand shall stand the Queen, all glorious within’), is therefore particularly appropriate.

The work is written for eight-part choir, strings and organ, and occupies almost the whole of each opening of the large score book into which Purcell transcribed many of his sacred compositions.

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