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‘Britain’s all-pleasing Orpheus’: the life and music of Henry Purcell – four online talks by Richard Wigmore

posted on 01/12/23


Famed above all for Dido and Aeneas, Henry Purcell was acknowledged as nonpareil among English composers even in his lifetime. After his premature death in 1695, aged just 36, he was hailed as ‘our all-pleasing Britain’s Orpheus’ and ‘the Delight of the Nation and the Wonder of the World’. None of Purcell’s contemporaries matched his melodic genius, or his inspired eclecticism that absorbed the fashionable continental styles of Lully and Corelli without sacrificing a distinctive Englishness. His minute sensitivity to the rhythms and cadences of the English language remains unsurpassed. 

Yet the biography of the composer who became a national icon remains frustratingly fragmentary. Over four weeks, writer and broadcaster Richard Wigmore pieces together the known facts of Purcell’s life, spent entirely in London, and explores a selection of his works, familiar and unfamiliar, and the colourful Restoration court and theatre milieus for which they were written. 

They take place every Thursday from 4th January to 25th January at 4.30pm and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (21st March 2024).

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The talks

1. A teenaged prodigy (4th January 2024)

Born into a family of court musicians in 1659, the young Henry Purcell grew up in the shadow of Westminster Abbey and became one of 12 boy trebles in London’s Chapel Royal. At 18 he was appointed ‘composer-in-ordinary for the king’s violins’ after Matthew Locke’s death. Two years later, he became organist of Westminster Abbey. This talk traces Purcell’s rapid rise to eminence, taking in works ranging from the Elegy on Locke’s death, through anthems for Charles II’s chapel, to the strange and beautiful fantasias for viol consort.

2. Composer for court and chapel (11th January 2024)

Throughout much of the 1680s Purcell’s career centred on providing music for court and chapel, above all verse anthems, royal odes and welcome songs. He also began an association with Dorset Garden Theatre, off Fleet Street, which lasted virtually until his death. In 1683 Purcell was commissioned by the newly formed Musical Society to write the first ode in celebration of Saint Cecilia. That ode – a typical case of vivid music triumphing over a banal text – will feature in this talk alongside verse anthems, theatre songs and music for the 1685 coronation of James II, in which Purcell also sang bass.

3. Riding the political maelstrom (18th January 2024)

Amid the religious and political instability of James II’s brief reign, Purcell continued to compose prolifically for court and Chapel Royal. His birthday ode for King James, ‘Why are all the muses mute?’ alludes to Monmouth’s failed rebellion of 1685. At the other end of the spectrum is the sublime Evening Hymn, unfolding serenely over a quintessentially Purcellian ‘ground bass’. In the year after the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, Purcell, by now Britain’s de facto national composer, produced the first of his birthday odes for Queen Mary, ‘Now does the glorious day appear’.

We will also explore Purcell’s most famous work, Dido and Aeneas. Possibly composed for Charles II’s court, this poignantly concise masterpiece – the first true English opera – was certainly performed at Josiah Priest’s school for ‘Young Gentlewomen’ in Chelsea in 1689.

4. The theatre composer (25th January 2024)

After the Bloodless Revolution, the pattern of Purcell’s creative life changed. He continued to provide occasional odes for the royal family. But with the militaristic William III opposed to elaborate church music, court music-making gradually wound down. Purcell now wrote increasingly for a broader middle-class audience: in the published sets of ‘choyce ayres and songs’, in incidental music for plays, and, above all, in the lavish so-called ‘semi-operas’ for Dorset Garden Theatre.

The final talk will focus on these multi-media theatrical extravaganzas, most famously King Arthur and The Fairy Queen. We shall also take in the last and greatest of Purcell’s Cecilian odes, ‘Hail, bright Cecilia’, the popular ode for Queen Mary, ‘Come, ye sons of art’, and Purcell’s funeral music for Mary, who died, widely mourned, in December 1694. Eleven months later, one of the pieces sung at the queen’s burial service, ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’, was performed at Purcell’s own funeral.

The speaker

Richard Wigmore

Music writer, lecturer and broadcaster for BBC Radio 3. He writes for BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone and has taught classes in Lieder history and interpretation at the Guildhall, Trinity College of Music and Birkbeck College. He read French and German at Cambridge and later studied Music at the Guildhall. His publications include Schubert: The Complete Song Texts and Pocket Guide to Haydn.

Register for the webinar series for £55

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