Baroque Music IV: Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Henry Purcell is the first in a distressingly lengthy list of composers whose lives were cut short in their primes.  Purcell, arguably the greatest English composer of all-time, was dead by the age of 36, leaving behind a wealth of wonderful compositions.  Like Mozart, he died shortly after completing his great funeral mass (Purcell’s was for Queen Mary).  He’s buried in Westminster Abbey under the epitaph: “Here lies Henry Purcell Esquire, who left life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.” 

Purcell, like his contemporaries, was obsessed about the relationship between chords.  So this is as good as any place to talk about developments in the sport of composers—harmonic progression.  Baroque composers developed the idea of relationship among chords and Purcell was a genius at overlaying melodies over a bed of repeating chords.  Sound familiar?  This is the basis for 95% of rock music.  And it began here, with Purcell.  Just listen to the same repeating series of chords in this brief hymn.

Henry Purcell, An Evening Hymn

Purcell’s harmonics would inspire composers across the centuries, finding a particular root with English popular composers in the 20th century. Pete Townsend was particularly inspired by Purcell, who he cited on many occasions as a primary source for his own songs. Purcell’s influence is I think clearest here, which is, perhaps not surprisingly, a personal favorite within The Who’s massive catalogue:

The Who, I Can See for Miles:

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