by Charlotte Nediger, harpsichordist

“He was superior to all his predecessors, that his compositions seemed to speak a new language; yet, however different … it was universally understood.” (Charles Burney, writing about Purcell in 1776)

Portrait of Henry Purcell by John Closterman, 1695

I think that my first “conscious” introduction to the music of Henry Purcell was while studying in Holland. I was 20, and spent a delightful year in The Hague with my boyfriend, Ivars Taurins (Tafelmusik Choir Director), doing graduate studies. My father periodically sent cassette tapes copied from LPs for us to play in our little one-room apartment. One that appeared in the mailbox was a copy of Purcell Consort Music played by the Leonhardt Consort. Ivars had left his LPs at my parents’ house in London, ON and for some mysterious reason Dad chose this one (he wouldn’t have known who Purcell was). We listened to the tape regularly, and it was a mind-opening experience for me. Purcell had a unique voice, with incredibly expressive counterpoint and harmony, unlike anything I’d heard before. Listen, for example, to the hauntingly beautiful Pavan for 3 violins and gamba, from that early recording (Playlist #1).

The piece that I especially fell in love with on the recording is the Fantasia in three parts on a ground, for 3 violins and continuo (Playlist #2). So joyous, open, embracing … When Ivars and I married a year later, it was the obvious choice as the piece to which I walked down the aisle. In fact, it was a very small chapel, and the aisle was very short, so mostly I stood at the back and revelled in the sound of a group of friends playing the Fantasia at the front. And I’ve revelled in it every anniversary since (all 41 of them!), including one in which Ivars arranged for a group of Tafelmusik musicians to magically appear in our front garden to play it (even secretly hiding music stands in the foliage so I wouldn’t guess in advance). Alison Mackay included it in her House of Dreams program, juxtaposed with Vermeer portraits, taking me right back to those days in Holland.

Purcell lived but 36 years (1659–1695), yet in this short span used what were clearly exceptional musical talents to create an expansive and varied body of works. Although there is abundant testimony of the esteem and admiration in which he was held by his contemporaries, this is scant evidence of his life story, or of his character. For the former, a brief outline may be helpful:

  • He was probably born in Westminster, a few blocks from Westminster Abbey, where he was to be buried. A short walk and you were in the country, in pasture and heath. To get to the city you hired a boat and travelled down river.
  • The timing of his arrival fortuitously coincided with the return of Charles II, and an enthusiastic restoration of music at court and in the theatres.
  • His father and uncle were musicians, working at court as singers and lutenists. His father died when Henry was just five years old, leaving his mother with a household of six children.
  • Purcell became a choir boy at the Chapel Royal, and as such was housed, fed, clothed, educated, and given intensive training in music.
  • His voice broke early, at age 14, but his talents were already clear and he was appointed as assistant to his Majesty’s “keeper” of the keyboard and wind instruments, and also worked as a copyist, “pricking out parts.”
  • In 1677, at age 18, he was appointed composer for the King’s Violins (i.e. the court orchestra), very unusual for someone so young.
  • At age 20 he was organist of Westminster Abbey, and married Frances. (The Pavan and Fantasia were composed around this time.)
  • 1682 finds him as organist at the Chapel Royal, and singing as both a bass and a countertenor.
  • His first publication, a set of trio sonatas, appeared in 1683; he was appointed harpsichordist of the king’s private music.
  • He continued to be a prodigious composer, working increasingly in the theatre after the death of Charles II in 1685.
  • He died on the eve of St. Cecilia’s Day (the patron saint of music) in 1695, survived by his wife and two children (four other children had died in infancy).
  • He was buried at the foot of the organ in Westminster Abbey with a resplendent funeral, at no cost to his widow.

From this we know that Purcell worked hard and with considerable success, and heard his music performed often and well. As to the man himself, that we can discover only through his music, so we return to listening. Let’s start with his music for the church, where he spent so much of his youth. One of the most uplifting of his anthems is Rejoice in the Lord always (Playlist #3), which came to be known as “The Bell Anthem,” for reasons that are obvious in the opening string symphony, with bells pealing through the parts.

The short but remarkable Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee (Playlist #4), was written when Purcell was just 20, yet seems to hold within it a lifetime of experience. Let mine eyes run down with tears (Playlist #5) was written two years later at what must have been a time of great sorrow for Henry. Frances and Henry lost both of their first children in infancy, the second shortly after the death of his uncle Thomas Purcell, who had cared for Henry following the early death of his father, and who worked alongside him at the Chapel Royal. One imagines that the tears in this text, from the Book of Jeremiah, may have been his own, and are poured into the extraordinary harmonies.

Before leaving the chapel, we turn to the splendid “O sing unto the Lord, Z.44” (Playlist #6), written in 1688. I have a particular weakness for settings of the word “Alleluja,” and this offers no fewer than three “alleluja” passages, including the very sweet, gentle ending. The bass soloist on this recording is Peter Harvey, who has joined us not only on stage, but also as voice teacher at the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute. It is always a joy to hear him sing.

A form Purcell excelled in was the devotional song: sacred works with non-biblical texts. At the end of the best known of these, An Evening Hymn (text by Bishop William Fuller; Playlist #7), we can indulge in another setting of “alleluja,” this time a very intimate one. Dame Emma Kirkby sang this as an encore the last time she joined us on stage, taking a seat beside lutenist Lucas Harris under dimmed lights. It felt like she was singing to every individual in the hall, and this recording takes me back to that moment.

Another remarkable singer of Purcell is the tenor Charles Daniels, as is evident in his singing of With sick and famish’d eyes (Playlist #8). He expresses every word that Purcell paints so masterfully in this anguished text by George Herbert. I have followed it on the Playlist with the Fantasia upon one note for a consort of viols, played here by the British group Fretwork (Playlist #9).

This brings us to one of the sonatas from Purcell’s first instrumental publication, the Sonatas of Three Parts (Sonata 12, Playlist #10), advertised as “a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian masters.” You could purchase a copy of the music in advance at a reduced price, and collect it upon release at Purcell’s house in St. Ann’s Lane.

A Prelude and Almand from one his suites for solo harpsichord (favourites of mine!—Playlist #11 & 12) lead us to one of the jewels of his many solo secular songs, O Solitude, my sweetest choice (Playlist #13). It is a setting of a text by the poet Katherine Philips, who spent much of her life in seclusion in Denbighshire. The text and melody are woven over mesmerizing repetitions of an 11-note bass line, a so-called ground bass. It is beautifully sung here by Canadian soprano Nancy Argenta.

One could spend many hours in solitude listening to the solo songs of Purcell, aptly nicknamed “the British Orpheus.” In addition to the dozens that appeared in various publications during his lifetime, there are several gems to be found in the odes he provided for special events at court: royal birthdays, weddings, and welcome odes, written to be performed to welcome back the king from time away. Imagine returning for a long journey to be serenaded with a new piece by your personal composer! My single favourite piece by Purcell (if I had to choose!) is the song “The sparrow and the gentle dove,” the centrepiece of an ode for the wedding of Princess Anne to Prince George of Denmark. It is written in one of Purcell’s favourite forms, and one which he put to good use in many of the odes: the solo is written over a ground bass, and melts into a ravishing string ritornello. It was recorded by Charles Daniels with the King’s Consort, but sadly I couldn’t find it on the streaming service. It is available on iTunes, and I encourage you to look it up: I’m sure that you’ll want to listen to it more than once. For our listening here, I offer a close second, in the same ground-bass form: By beauteous softness mix’d with majesty, from a birthday ode for Queen Mary in 1689 (Playlist #14).

Purcell wrote four odes for the annual celebrations in London on the feast day of the patron saint of music, St Cecilia. The most expansive of these dates from 1692: “Hail, bright Cecilia” is a setting of text by Nicholas Brady in which the virtues of various instruments are extolled in the various movements. This is a piece we’ve performed a few times at Tafelmusik, and I couldn’t resist including an extended selection (Playlist #15–19): choruses frame a duet describing how trees break their silence when turned into violins, flutes, and lyres; followed by the extraordinary tenor solo “’Tis nature’s voice”; and the irresistible “Wondrous machine,” in which a bass soloist sings the praises of the organ, accompanied not by an organ, but by two oboes (the ultimate reed stop!).

Finally, to the theatre, which occupied much of Purcell’s time in his final years, and his most public forum. He wrote incidental music for more than three dozen stage plays, as well as four semi-operas, entertainments consisting of “half Musick, and half Dramas.” I include two instrumental movements from The distress’d Innocence, or the Princess of Persia (Playlist #20 & 21), a tragedy written by Elkanah Settle in 1690, and the enchanting night sequence from The Fairy Queen (Playlist #22–26), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania has bid the fairies to sing her to sleep …

I add one final indulgence, which is to invite Titania and the fairies to return to The Evening Hymn, this time with British countertenor Iestyn Davies in an arrangement with viol consort by Silas Wollston (Playlist #27, or in a video filmed in Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver in 2019).

Texts for Purcell Listening Guide

Playlist #3: Rejoice in the Lord alway

Rejoice in the Lord alway,
and again I say rejoice.
Let your moderation be known unto all men.
The Lord is at hand.
Be careful for nothing;
but in every thing by prayer and supplication
with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.
And the peace of God,
which passeth all understanding,
shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Philippians 4:4-7

Playlist #4: Hear my prayer, o Lord

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.

Psalm 102

Playlist #5: Let mine eyes run down with tears

Let mine eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease,
for the virgin daughter of my people is broken with a great breach, with a very grievous blow.
If I go forth into the field, then behold the slain with the sword!
And if I enter into the city, then behold them that are sick with famine!
Yea, both the prophet and the priest go about into a land which they know not.

Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul loath’d Zion?
why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us?
We look’d for peace, and there is no good; and for the time of healing, and behold, trouble!

We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, and th’iniquity of our forefathers:
for we have sinn’d against thee.

Do not abhor us, for thy name’s sake; do not, O do not disgrace the throne of thy glory:
remember, break not thy cov’nant with us.

Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain? or can the heav’ns give show’rs?
Art thou not he, O Lord our God?

Therefore will we wait upon thee, for thou hast made all these things.

Jeremiah 14:17-22

Playlist #6: O sing unto the Lord a new song

O sing unto the Lord a new song.

Sing unto the Lord, all the whole earth.

Sing unto the Lord,
sing unto the Lord and praise his name:
be telling of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his honour unto the heathen:
and his wonders unto all people.

Glory and worship are before him:
power and honour are in his sanctuary.

The Lord is great, and cannot worthily be praised:
he is more to be feared than all gods.
As for the gods of the heathen, they are but idols:
but it is the Lord that made the heavens.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness:
let the whole earth stand in awe of him.

Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King:
The Lord is King, The Lord is King, is King, the Lord is King
and that ’tis he who hath made the round world
so sure that it cannot be moved;
‘Tis he, ’tis he, ’tis he who hath made the round world
so sure that it cannot be moved;

And how that he shall judge the people righteously.

Psalm 96

Playlist #7: Evening Hymn

Now, now that the sun hath veil’d his light
And bid the world goodnight;
To the soft bed my body I dispose,
But where shall my soul repose?
Dear, dear God, even in thy arms,
And can there be any so sweet security!
Then to thy rest, O my soul!
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days.


William Fuller

Playlist #8: With sick and famish’d eyes

With sick and famish’d eyes,
With doubling knees and weary bones,
To thee my cries,
To thee my groans,
To thee my sighs, my tears ascend:
No end?

My throat, my soul is hoarse;
My heart is wither’d like a ground
Which thou dost curse;
My thoughts turn round
And make me giddy;
Lord, Lord, I fall
Yet call.

Bowels of pity hear!
Lord of my soul, love of my mind,
Bow down thine ear!
Let not thy wind
Scatter my words, and in the same
Thy name!

Look on my sorrows round!
Mark well my furnace!
O what flames,
What heats abound!
What griefs, what shames!
Consider, Lord, Lord, bow thine ear
And hear!

Lord Jesu, thou didst bow
Thy dying head upon the tree;
O be not now
More dead to me!
Lord, hear!
Lord, hear! shall he that made the ear
Not hear?

Behold thy dust doth stir,
It moves, it creeps to thee;
Do not defer
To succour me,
Thy pile of dust wherein each crumb
Says “Come.”

My love, my sweetness, hear!
By these thy feet, at which my heart
Lies all the year,
Pluck out thy dart,
And heal my troubled breast, which cries,
Which dies.

George Herbert

Playlist #12: O solitude, my sweetest choice

O solitude, my sweetest choice:
Places devoted to the night,
Remote from tumult and from noise,
How ye my restless thoughts delight!
O solitude, my sweetest choice.
O heav’ns, what content is mine
To see these trees, which have appear’d
From the nativity of time,
And which all ages have rever’d,
To look today as fresh and green
As when their beauties first were seen.

O, how agreeable a sight
These hanging mountains do appear,
Which th’unhappy would invite
To finish all their sorrows here,
When their hard fate makes them endure
Such woes as only death can cure.

O, how I solitude adore!
That element of noblest wit,
Where I have learnt Apollo’s lore,
Without the pains to study it.
For thy sake I in love am grown
With what thy fancy does pursue;
But when I think upon my own,
I hate it for that reason too,
Because it needs must hinder me
From seeing and from serving thee.
O solitude, O how I solitude adore!

Katherine Philips

Playlist #13: By beauteous softness mix’d with majesty

By beauteous softness mix’d with majesty,
An empire over ev’ry heart she gains;
And from her awful pow’r none would be free,
She with such sweetness and such justice reigns.


St Cecilia Ode

Playlist #14: Soul of the world

Soul of the World! Inspir’d by thee,
the jarring Seeds of Matter did agree,
thou didst the scatter’d Atoms bind,
which, by thy Laws of true proportion join’d,
made up of various Parts one perfect Harmony.

Playlist #15: Hark, hark, each tree its silence breaks

Hark! hark! each Tree its silence breaks,
the Box and Fir to talk begin!
This is the sprightly Violin that in the Flute distinctly speaks!
‘Twas Sympathy their list’ning Brethren drew,
when to the Thracian Lyre with leafy Wings they flew.

Playlist #16: ’Tis Nature’s voice

‘Tis Nature’s Voice; thro’ all the moving Wood
of Creatures understood:
the Universal Tongue to none
of all her num’rous Race unknown.
From her it learnt the mighty Art
to court the Ear or strike the Heart;
at once the Passions to express and move;
we hear, and straight we grieve or hate, rejoice or love;
in unseen Chains it does the Fancy bind;
at once it charms the Sense and captivates the Mind.

Playlist #17: Wondrous machine

Wondrous Machine!
To thee the Warbling Lute,
though us’d to Conquest, must be forc’d to yield:
with thee unable to dispute.

Playlist #18: Hail, bright Cecilia, hail to thee!

Hail! Bright Cecilia, hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!
Who, whilst among the Choir above
thou dost thy former Skill improve,
with Rapture of Delight dost see
thy Favourite Art
make up a Part
of infinite Felicity.
Hail! Bright Cecilia, hail to thee!
Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!

Nicholas Brady

The Fairy Queen

Playlist #23: See, even Night herself is here

See, even Night her self is here,
to favour your Design;
and all her Peaceful Train is near,
that Men to Sleep incline.
Let Noise and Care,
Doubt and Despair,
Envy and Spite,
(the Fiends delight)
be ever Banish’d hence,
let soft Repose,
her Eye-lids close;
and murmuring Streams,
bring pleasing Dreams;
let nothing stay to give offence.

Playlist #24: One charming night

One charming Night
gives more delight,
than a hundred lucky Days.
Night and I improve the taste,
make the pleasure longer last,
a thousand, thousand several ways.

Playlist #25: Hush, no more

Hush, no more, be silent all,
sweet Repose has clos’d her Eyes.
Soft as feather’d Snow does fall!
Softly, softly, steal from hence.
No noise disturb her sleeping sense.

Author unknown

Playlist #27: Evening hymn (see #7)

Learn more about early music

Explore Baroque! Learn more about baroque music, composers, instruments, our orchestra, choir, and much more.