A Very British Orpheus!

Harpsichord(Orpheus – in ancient Greece considered to be the greatest of all musicians and poets, who could ‘charm the birds, fish and wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance and divert the course of rivers’ when he sang and played on his lyre.)

When Henry Purcell’s wife published two volumes of his compositions after his death with the title Orpheus Brittanicus (a British Orpheus), she was giving voice to the high esteem in which her late husband had been held by the English public, nobility and newly restored monarchs.
Purcell is considered by many people to be our finest English composer.

He was born in Westminster in 1659 to a musical family. Six months later saw the restoration of the English monarchy and, with that, a new chapter opened for English music. Purcell’s father and uncle both sang in the Chapel Royal Choir and he grew up amongst the best of court and church musicians of the day under the patronage of Charles 11.

After a long Civil War and Commonwealth period under Oliver Cromwell (when theatres were closed, public performance of music banned, similarly all Christmas feasting, carols etc, no music allowed in church services) English music was fortunate that a genius of Purcell’s stature came along to set it on its way again.

During his exile in France, Charles 11 heard and admired the up-to-date French and Italian music – and encouraged his own court musicians to bring their innovations to England.

Purcell spent his life in and around Westminster and the court – he was organist at the Abbey and Chapel Royal – and is buried next to the organ in Westminster Abbey. He was a prolific composer of church music, organ music, songs, music for violins, harpsichord and orchestra. In his later life he wrote for the theatre – notably the first real English opera, Dido and Aeneas.

He composed for all State occasions for Charles 11, James 11 and King William and Queen Mary.
He died in 1695. The funeral music written for Queen Mary the previous year was played at his own funeral. It is still played and sung today at State Burials.

Listen to:

Dido’s lament from Dido and Aeneas. You will hear the bass line played solo in the opening bars. This same bass tune is repeated over and over and the song composed over the top of it. This compositional technique is called a ground bass – a popular device used by Purcell and other Baroque composers.
Fantasia upon one note – possibly tongue in cheek, but very clever piece – that one note persists throughout!

Incidental music written for the play Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge – the Rondeau tune was made famous when Benjamin Britten used it as the basis for his Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.


Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away
I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly


John Dryden’s very beautiful Ode, on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell

‘So ceas’d the rival Crew when Purcell came,
They Sung no more, or only Sung his Fame.’

Guest Blog by Marion Shuster

Marion Shuster has been teaching music, conducting and performing locally for over 30 years. She currently has two choirs based in East Grinstead, the Greenstede Singers and Choirpower, as well as a busy teaching schedule.

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