Sep 102017

Today is surmised to be the birthday (1659) of the English composer Henry Purcell although there are no official records concerning his birth. The date is conjectured based on circumstantial evidence, but I’ll go with it. In my humble opinion Purcell is the greatest English composer, and one of my favorites of all time.  He had a profound influence on Baroque music in what some musicologists consider an English style, and no other native-born English composer approached his fame until the likes of Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Benjamin Britten came along in the 20th century. Even so, I rank them as second rate in comparison with Purcell. I have published several of my researches on Purcell’s music and its influence, and have written two compositions using his music in them. Yup, I’m a fan.  I could say a lot about the man and his music but I’ll limit myself to some biographical details and comment on a small fraction of his work. Most importantly, historical details about his life and work are often shadowy because of a paucity of primary sources.

Purcell was born in St Ann’s Lane, Old Pye Street Westminster – the area of London later known as Devil’s Acre. His father, also Henry Purcell, whose older brother, Thomas Purcell, (d. 1682) was a musician, was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and sang at the coronation of King Charles II. Henry the elder had three sons: Edward, Henry and Daniel. Daniel Purcell (d. 1717), the youngest of the brothers, was also a prolific composer who wrote the music for much of the final act of The Indian Queen after Henry Purcell’s death. Henry Purcell’s family lived just a few hundred yards west of Westminster Abbey from 1659 onwards.

After his father’s death in 1664, Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle Thomas, who showed him great affection and kindness. Thomas was himself a gentleman of His Majesty’s Chapel, and arranged for Henry to be admitted as a chorister. Henry studied first under Captain Henry Cooke (d. 1672), Master of the Children, and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey (d. 1674), Cooke’s successor. Henry was a chorister in the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in 1673, when he became assistant to the organ-builder John Hingston, who held the post of keeper of wind instruments to the king.

Purcell is said to have been composing at 9 years old, but the earliest work that can be certainly identified as his is an ode for the King’s birthday, written in 1670. (The dates for his compositions are often uncertain, despite considerable research.) It is assumed that he wrote the three-part song “Sweet tyranness, I now resign” as a child. After Humfrey’s death, Purcell continued his studies under Dr John Blow. He attended Westminster School and in 1676 was appointed copyist at Westminster Abbey. Purcell’s earliest anthem “Lord, who can tell” was composed in 1678. It is a psalm that is prescribed for Christmas Day and also to be read at morning prayer on the fourth day of the month.

In 1679, he wrote songs for John Playford’s Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues, and his music was an integral part of Playford’s Dancing Master through many editions of the work. This is one of the areas I know best and I have written about it extensively – I’ll try to be brief !!! One of my favorite Purcell tunes is this one used for Playford’s dance, “Hole in the Wall.” Here it is on period instruments:

Purcell also used it as one of his incidental musical pieces (#8 Hornpipe, Z 570) for a 1695 revival of Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge, an adaptation by Aphra Behn of a c. 1600 tragedy Lust’s Dominion. The lingering question, posed in part by rendition on period instruments, is how Purcell’s music sounded in his time. A lot is guesswork. Reconstructing the dances (my realm) is even greater guesswork. This is a version from the film, Becoming Jane, which I would take with a huge grain of salt to begin with. Period films have at least one obligatory dance scene, and in this case it is both completely anachronistic (100 years off), and unlikely to be any more than a whiff of the “real thing.”

I’ll make (minor) allowances for dramatic license. The smiling and flirting may well be legitimate; the bobbing up and down whilst walking through the dance is completely made up. We have not the slightest idea how they moved.

In 1679, Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favour of his pupil. Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theatre. However, during the early part of the year, probably before taking up his new office, he had produced two important works for the stage, the music for Nathaniel Lee’s Theodosius, and Thomas d’Urfey’s Virtuous Wife. Between 1680 and 1688 Purcell wrote music for seven plays.[11] The composition of his chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, and its earliest production may well have predated the documented one of 1689. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, and performed in 1689 in cooperation with Josias Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theatre. Priest’s wife kept a boarding school for young gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea, where the opera was performed. It is occasionally considered the first genuine English opera, though that title is usually given to Blow’s Venus and Adonis. As in Blow’s work, the action does not progress in spoken dialogue but in Italian-style recitative. At the time, Dido and Aeneas never found its way to the theatre, though it appears to have been very popular in private circles. The composition of Dido and Aeneas gave Purcell his first chance to write a sustained musical setting of a dramatic text. It was his only opportunity to compose a work in which the music carried the entire drama.

Soon after Purcell’s marriage, in 1682, on the death of Edward Lowe, he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, an office which he was able to hold simultaneously with his position at Westminster Abbey. In 1685, he wrote two of his finest anthems, “I was glad” and “My heart is inditing,” for the coronation of King James II. He weathered the storms of the Glorious Revolution and became a favorite of Queen Mary II. In 1690 he composed a setting of a birthday ode for the queen Mary, “Arise, my muse” and 4 years later wrote one of his most elaborate and magnificent works: a setting for another birthday ode for the Queen, written by Nahum Tate, entitled “Come Ye Sons of Art.”

Purcell wrote the music for Mary’s funeral in 1695: a masterpiece that is still duly celebrated.

The initial march, in C minor, was written for a quartet of flatt trumpets (Baroque slide trumpets), which could play notes outside of the harmonic series and thus in a minor key. Thus the music was revolutionary for its time.  Stanley Kubrick reused it, reworked by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos for Moog synthesizer, as incidental music for A Clockwork Orange, and, as such, is well known in certain quarters.

Purcell died in 1695 at his home in Marsham Street, at the height of his career. He is believed to have been 35 or 36 years old at the time. The cause of his death is unclear: one speculation is that he caught a chill after returning home late from the theater one night to find that his wife had locked him out. Another is that he succumbed to tuberculosis.

Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey. The music that he had composed for queen Mary’s funeral was performed during his as well.  Following his death, the officials at Westminster honored him by unanimously voting that he be buried with no expense in the north aisle of the Abbey. His epitaph reads: “Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that Blessed Place where only His harmony can be exceeded.”

Recreating period recipes is fraught with difficulties similar to those in recreating period music and dance.  Here’s 2 from The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, first printed in 1669. The first is seemingly easy to reproduce:


It is a good Sallet, to slice a cold Capon thin; mingle with it some Sibbolds, Lettice, Rocket and Tarragon sliced small. Season all with Pepper, Salt, Vinegar and Oyl, and sliced Limon. A little Origanum doth well with it.

The trick here is to figure out what “Sibbolds” are. I did a bit of head scratching, and when I looked online I found nothing at first other than an amateur effort at interpreting the recipe which called sibbolds “a leafy green” — which is nonsense. “Sibbolds” is clearly an alternate spelling of “sibboulets” – a diminutive of “sibol” or “cibol” (cognate with French ciboule), a perennial onion plant, Allium fistulosum, commonly called Welsh onion. Do your homework people !!!

This looks like a fairly modern recipe for chicken salad which you can replicate with little effort, although your ingredients will have to be modern varieties. As is usual with 17th century salads, what we now call “herbs” (tarragon and oregano) were chopped in with the lettuce and rocket (arugula) – which were also referred to as herbs in those days – rather than mixed with the oil and vinegar as in a French vinaigrette. The sliced lemon is a nice touch.

What do you make of this cake recipe?


Take eight wine quarts of flower; one pound of loaf Sugar beaten and searsed; one ounce of Mace, beat it very fine: then take thirty Eggs, fifteen whites, beat them well; then put to them a quart of new Ale-yest; beat them very well together, and strain them into your flower; then take a pint of Rose-water, wherein six grains of Ambergreece and Musk have been over night. Then take a pint and half of Cream or something more, and set it on the fire, and put into it four pounds and three quarters of Butter; And when it is all melted, take it off the fire and stir it about, until it be pretty cool; And pour all into your flower, and stir it up quick with your hands, like a lith pudding; Then dust a little flower over it, and let it stand covered with a Flannel, or other woollen cloth, a quarter of an hour before the fire, that it may rise; Then have ready twelve pounds of Currants very well washed and pick’d, that there may be neither stalks, nor broken Currants in them. Then let your Currants be very well dryed before the fire, and put warm into your Cake; then mingle them well together with your hands; then get a tin hoop that will contain that quantity, and butter it well, and put it upon two sheets of paper well buttered; so pour in your Cake, and so set it into the oven, being quick that it may be well soaked, but not to burn. It must bake above an hour and a quarter; near an hour and half. Take then a pound and half of double refined Sugar purely beaten and searsed; put into the whites of five Eggs; two or 3 spoonfuls of rose-water; keep it a beating all the time, that the Cake is a baking which will be two hours; Then draw your Cake out of the oven, and pick the dry Currants from the top of it, and so spread all that you have beaten over it, very smooth, and set it a little into the oven, that it may dry.

By my estimation you’d need a forklift to get it in the oven.  2 gallons of flour? 1 pound of sugar? 30 eggs plus 15 egg whites? Almost 5 pounds of butter? 12 pounds of currants?  . . .etc etc. And . . . you bake it in ONE tin for a little over 90 minutes (the instructions cannot decide whether it should be an hour and a quarter or 2 hours). The icing looks to be a version of what we now call royal icing. My strong suspicion is that Kenelm Digby, or his editor, never tried this recipe, and actually had no idea what he was talking about. If you examine the recipe closely enough you could make some reasonable simulacrum. It’s a version of yeast cake with currants.