Purcell and Opera

For me, Purcell is all about opera.  Finally, at the close of the 17th century, we finally get a composer who can rival Monteverdi in presenting searing emotion in song.  Here are two of Purcell’s more famous arias, performed by two great contemporary mezzo-sopranos, Susan Graham and Anne Sophie von Otter:

Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, “When I am Laid in Earth” (aka Dido’s Lament):

Henry Purcell, Oedipus, “Music for a While”:

Little is known about Purcell’s brief life, which is one of the reasons he remains somewhat outside of the pantheon of great composers.  And, to be fair, I hadn’t given him his proper due prior to compiling this project.  He made the list for Dido’s Lament and his importance to the development of opera, but really listening to his music has been eye-opening.  His gift for clear melody was unsurpassed in his age, but avoided many of the ornaments that overly complicate many Baroque composition.  He might well be the bridge that connects the Classical Period back to the Renaissance. As the great music critic Alex Ross notes, Purcell, unlike his contemporaries, revels in the dissonant clashes that are endemic to polyphonic composition.  Consider the following example from Purcell’s Ode to St. Cecilia:

Henry Purcell, Ode to St. Cecilia, Soul of the World:

[R]adiant triads blossom from towering cluster-like chords. He also sets his sumptuous harmony against strict rhythmic regularity. His favorite device is the chaconne, or ground bass, in which a simple string of notes recurs obsessively in the continuo. He similarly built structures on ordinary ditties, simple scales, solitary tones. These are the tricks of a supreme musical intellect.

Alex Ross

Needless to say, I agree. Incidentally, St. Cecilia is absolutely a historical figure, whose body lies under the alter in the church that bears her name in the Trastevere district of Rome.  Martyred as a young woman, when they opened her coffin around the time that Purcell was composing, they found evidence that her neck had been broken, causing her body to lie at a strange angle.  The sculptor Stefano Maderno carved her body exactly as it was found.  The resulting statute, which rests above her tomb, is a devastating example of Baroque art:  https://fineartamerica.com/featured/martyrdom-of-saint-cecilia-by-maderno-weston-westmoreland.html.

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: