top of page

Wenceslas Hollar - On the North Side of London, 1664

Purcell's London

“The walls had long since ceased their original function, of protecting the city against siege and attack, and seventeenth-century London was expanding in all directions.  The City proper was densely populated, with narrow streets and medieval wooden buildings blotting out the sky with overhanging storeys.  A mass of small ships sold goods of every description.  Noise was everywhere, with hawkers and apprentices bawling the merits of their wares, and the wheels of coaches and carts creating a constant rattle on the cobbled streets.  Hackney coaches abounded, and their drivers would often brawl with each other and aggravate the footmen of the richer residents.  Traffic congestion was terrible, beaten only by the smell of the city.  Sanitation was primitive in the extreme.”   Robert King, Henry Purcell, 1994.


The London into which Henry Purcell was born on an unknown date in 1659 was a capital in a state of flux and confusion.  Twenty years of Commonwealth rule, the most radical experiment in the history of England, had produced a dourly efficient government now in its terminal stages, its faltering position fatally undermined by the death in the previous year of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector and the one man who might have maintained puritan austerity.  Cromwell’s successor, his son Richard, possessed none of his father’s political skill, and his brief career was brought to an abrupt end on 24 May 1659 when he was forced to abdicate as Protector.  A year and a day later the exiled Stuart monarch Charles 11 landed at Dover, heralding a new era of dynamic artistic rejuvenation in England.


Although the effect on English musical life during the years of the Interregnum was not as catastrophic as has sometimes been suggested, it was certainly severe.  In particular the strong traditions of Anglican church music has suffered grievously, Puritan intolerance of all but the simplest music having resulted in the disbandment of the great cathedral choral schools and the wholesale wanton destruction of organs, amongst them that of Westminster Abbey, its pipes pawned by drunken Rounheads to buy beer.  Strong disapproval of the theatre smothered dramatic and musical development, and it comes as something of a paradox to recall that the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes, was performed during this cheerless period, albeit under clandestine conditions.  Equally damaging was the isolation that resulted from a nation concerned only with its own inner turmoil, a state of introversion resulting in the near cessation of the stimulating interaction between native and Continental composers and musicians.


Of the major native composers who had blossomed under the reign of Charles 1 (arguably the most artistic of all English monarchs) in pre-Civil War days, only the 30-year-old Matthew Locke was in a position to play a significant role in the Restoration re-establishment of the country’s court and public musical life.  Some, notably Henry Lawes and John Jenkins, would find new court appointments, but were too close to retirement to make a major contribution, whilst Thomas Tomkins and Lawes’ brother, the prodigiously talented William, had failed to survive the Interregnum, the latter an heroically tragic Cavalier victim of the Siege of Chester in 1645.


The return of Charles 11, news of which, according to the diarist Samuel Pepys, occasioned “great joy” and people “drinking of the King’s health upon their knees in the streets” (which he thought “a little too much”) but was quickly succeeded by more practical concerns.  The nation’s finances were in a precarious state – neither army nor navy had received payment for some time, and the restored King was immediately faced with demands for restitution from many who felt they had been wronged during Cromwell’s times.  It might have seemed an unlikely time for music to take priority, yet here as in other matters Charles acted quickly, and by 24 June had appointed Matthew Locke to the important court post of composer to “ye private musick”.  An early product of Locke’s new appointment was the first of two sets of chamber works entitled The Broken Consort (c.1661), six chamber suites for violins, viols and continuo (hence “broken”) that revive the contrapuntal English consort tradition and frequently display the piquant harmonies and love of dissonance characteristic of 17th-century English composers.


What the King thought of The Broken Consort is not recorded, but it is unlikely that he would have been impressed by Locke’s mastery of counterpoint.  His long exile had given him a pronounced taste for all things French and Italian, in particular the bright airy tunes and lively rhythms he had heard played by Louis X1V’s Vingt-Quatre Violons, a band Charles now set out to emulate and which rapidly became the most important purveyors of royal instrumental music.  Neither was his predilection for bright melodious music confined to the salon, for the King equally expected to tap his foot to the music when he went to the reconstituted Chapel Royal.  No greater musical challenge existed in the 1660s than reviving Anglican church music and Charles was lucky in the man he chose for the exacting task.  Henry Cooke was a modestly talented composer who had contributed to The Siege of Rhodes and established a considerable reputation as a singing teacher during the Interregnum.  On his appointment as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, Cooke set out on a talent-spotting crusade to recruit the best boys he heard.  His success was remarkable either for its acumen or good fortune (or more likely a combination of both), for amongst his earliest discoveries were several musicians who would subsequently make important contributions to Restoration musical life, amongst them Pelham Humfrey and John Blow.


Thirteen at the time he joined the Chapel Royal in 1660, Humfrey was Blow’s senior by a couple of years, and it was he whom Charles dispatched to study on the Continent when his voice broke four years later.  It was rumoured that in addition to his musical studies Humfrey also managed to engage in the odd bit of spying on behalf of his royal master, although no evidence has emerged to verify the claim.  What does seem certain is that he returned to England, as Pepys irritably put it, “a proper Monsieur”, enabled by his experiences to indulge the King’s taste in anthems that featured extensive instrumental symphonies and ritornellos in the style of the grands motets Humfrey had heard in France.  The cultural shock occasioned to a generation reared on the simple unaccompanied psalms of the Puritans must have been profound, and the sentiments articulated by the diarist John Evelyn were no doubt shared by many: “…a consort of twenty-four violins between every pause after the French fantastical light way, better suiting a tavern or a playhouse than a church…”  But at its finest, as in the extended penitential verse anthem O Lord my God, Humfrey was capable of striking a deeper vein that also embraced strong Italianate  rhetorical expressivity, a combination of styles that was to find its apotheosis in the synthesis achieved by Purcell.  The early death of Humfrey in 1674 undoubtedly deprived English music of a highly talented composer.


Two years before his death Humfrey had succeeded Cooke as Master of the Children, a position that was now filled by his former fellow chorister John Blow.  Thus amongst the pupils of both men was the young Henry Purcell, who had entered the Chapel Royal in 1668 as a boy of eight or nine.  Before he had done so Purcell’s London had been struck by two cataclysmic events.  In March 1665 threatened war with the Dutch became a reality.  Worse was to follow.  An unusually severe winter during which the Thames froze over was followed by one of the hottest summers on record.  Incipient signs of plague that had emerged during the spring became an epidemic.  Those who could left the capital, but for those who remained life became a precarious thread.  By September the death toll had reached up to a thousand a day, and only with the return of cooler weather in October did the figures start to subside.  A year later a new catastrophe struck.  As if on cue to act as a cleansing of the aftermath of the plague, on September 2 fire broke out at a baker’s in the city.  A change of wind direction rapidly spread the conflagration, which took hold of merchants’ warehouses containing highly flammable materials.  The Great Fire that followed would burn for five days, taking with it much of the old City of London, including 87 parish churches.


In hindsight it is easy to see that the Great Fire had positive results, not least the magnificent new St Paul’s and superb new City churches designed by the young Deputy Surveyor of His Majesties Works, Christopher Wren.  But to those living in London at the end of 1666 the outlook was bleak.  Financial pressures, never far from the surface, increased still further.  The musicians employed by Charles found their pay constantly in arrears; in the same year that Purcell entered the Chapel Royal Cooke refused to let the boys attend the chapel on the grounds that their clothes were in such a bad state of repair that he had to keep them inside.


The education received by the boys of the Chapel Royal encompassed not only singing but also instrumental tuition and theory.  It is probable that Purcell received not only keyboard tuition on the organ and harpsichord, but also as a string player, gaining a proficiency and awareness of instruments and instrumental techniques further enhanced by his appointment in 1673 as unpaid assistant to John Hingeston, the keeper, repairer and tuner of royal instruments, a post assumed by Purcell on Hingeston’s death in 1683.


Of no less importance were the opportunities the position provided for the boy to associate with his seniors, whose ranks now started to include a number of foreign musicians attracted to London by the increasingly cosmopolitan city.  Amongst those who had gained influential posts was the Catalan born (but French trained) Louis Grabu, who arrived in England in 1665 and the following year was given the prestigious appointment of Master of Music, thus giving him effective control of the “Twenty-Four Violins”.  London now also had its Italian opera company, the King having granted a licence to a group of Italian musicians who arrived in England in 1663.  It is possible their number included another composer who was to have a significant influence on Purcell, Giovanni Battista Draghi.  The latter’s 1687 setting of John Dryden’s splendid St Cecilia’s Day Ode From harmony, from heav’nly harmony introduced a new grandeur and breadth into Purcell’s own choral writing that leads directly to Handel.  In the early 1670s the arrival of the brilliant Italian violinist Nicola Matteis presaged a new appreciation of the Italian style, a fashion reflected in Purcell’s increasing assimilation of “the seriousness and gravity of that sort of Musique”, as he put it in the preface to his Sonnatas of lll parts.


But of Purcell’s musical contemporaries it was his teacher and friend John Blow with whom he is most associated.  Born in Newark, Nottinghamshire in 1649, Blow must by all accounts have been an estimable man, even the stern 18th-century English historian Sir John Hawkins conceding that “Dr Blow was a very handsome man in his person, and remarkable for a gravity and decency… though he seems by some of his compositions to have been not altogether insensible to the delights of a convivial hour”.  Restoration bawdiness was not at all to Hawkin’s taste!  Blow’s decency and esteem for Purcell reputedly led to him voluntarily giving up his position as organist of Westminster Abbey to his younger colleague in 1679, a gesture that may not have been quite as altruistic as it appears, since Blow himself was heavily committed at the Chapel Royal, being not only one of the three organists attached to the Chapel but also Master of the Children.


One of the peculiarly English forms employed by Blow, Purcell and their contemporaries was the court ode, composed to mark a variety of occasions throughout the royal calendar.  These works, generally consisting of an opening orchestral symphony followed by an alternation of air and chorus, ranged from the honouring of birthdays to odes celebrating a safe royal return to London after absence, not to be taken for granted in a country seething with real or imagined Jacobite plot and counter-plot.  The bad verse, propagandist purport and, at times, excruciating sycophancy of these odes has little appeal to modern listeners, who have in the main ignored them.  Yet to do so is to miss two important points.  The first is quite simply that in the instance of Purcell in particular they contain some of his finest music, and to neglect the series he composed in 1680 and 1695, the year of his death, is to deprive ourselves of a central and major part of his output.  Additionally, those who would understand more of Restoration England will find buried amongst the slurry of texts fascinating nuggets of social history.  A line like “To the plague of rebellion the mischief was growing” may pass more or less unnoticed until we recognise that the ode it comes from, The summer’s absence unconcerned we bear, was a celebration of the King’s safe return from his usual autumn visit to Newmarket in 1682, a journey he survived only because an assassination plot was aborted when the royal party travelled earlier than expected.  Interested readers will find a fascinating amplification of the textural significance of the odes by Ian Spink in Purcell Studies (Cambridge, 1995).


Before leaving the reign of Charles 11, one other small but far reaching event must be noted.  On December 30, 1672, amongst the advertisements carried by the London Gazette one would have read: “These are to give notice that at Mr John Bannister’s house, now called the Musick School, over against the George Tavern in White Fryars, this present Monday, will be Musick performed by Excellent Masters, beginning precisely at 4 of the clock in the afternoon, and every afternoon for the future, precisely at the same hour”.  John Bannister was a violinist and a former leader of the “Twenty-Four Violins” who had fallen out of favour with the King for having the temerity to suggest that English violinists were superior to their French counterparts.  His announcement constituted nothing less than the foundation of the first known public concert series, an initiative quickly emulated by others and one that instigated London’s 18th-century eminence and attraction to foreign musicians as the major concert giving capital of Europe.


The death of Charles on 2 February 1685 ended an era as eventful and as colourful as the monarch himself.  The coronation of his successor, his brother James, a little under three months later was a lavish affair that included music by Henry Lawes, Blow and Purcell, the latter’s contribution being an anthem specially composed for the occasion, My heart is inditing.  But James 11 had none of his brother’s interest in opulence; he was a military man whose musical taste was never more happily satisfied than by the stirring sounds of trumpets and drums.  In contrast to Charles the new monarch proved an excellent economist who during his short reign repaid nearly a million pounds of crown debts, and his servants too now found themselves in the unaccustomed position of being paid promptly.  But if James was a better financial manager than his predecessor, he was far less the diplomat and one failing in this respect would prove fatal to his reign.  Whilst Charles was undoubtedly a covert Catholic (indeed he is said to have converted to the faith on his deathbed), his circumspection and public support of the established Anglican church allayed the natural fears of a country perpetually in fear or “Popish plots”.  In contrast James not only openly supported Catholic advancement but worse still in the eyes of most Englishmen had after the death of his first wife married a Catholic, Mary of Modena.  In such an atmosphere the Chapel Royal, so strongly supported by Charles, found its importance waning, its supremacy indeed even challenged by the new Roman Catholic chapel opened in Whitehall at the end of 1686.  It is a development that heralds a marked change of emphasis in Purcell’s output, where we now find the loss of focus on the Chapel reflected in a significant decline in the number of anthems he composed, the majority of which predate 1685.


In the climate of the times such politics could only end in disaster for James, and in 1688 the crisis came to a head with the birth of a royal heir, thus nullifying the claim of the hitherto heirs presumptive, the solidly Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary, daughter of James by his first marriage.  William’s subsequent landing in England at the invitation of a group of leading establishment figures  and the largely peaceful “Glorious Revolution” that followed led to James departing for exile in France, leaving the throne to a unique joint sovereignty.  The new monarchs were very different personalities.  Whilst William lll was an experienced and efficient administrator under whose reign Britain’s increasing prosperity and mercantile power burgeoned, he never won the affection of his subjects.  Conversely his wife became a much loved figure who inspired Purcell to some of his finest music in the six odes he composed for her birthdays between 1689 and her premature death in 1694, an event genuinely mourned and her funeral immortalised by the moving dignity of the music provided by Purcell for the occasion.


Under William and Mary, royal patronage of music became increasingly diminished.  The brilliant, string-accompanied Chapel Royal anthems of former days gave way to a more sober style in which only the organ provided support, and whilst Blow, the most powerful establishment musician, remained quintessentially a sacred composer, others sought new ground.  For Purcell that new ground was to be the theatre, a medium to which he had previously paid little attention.  From 1690 until his death he provided music for nearly 40 theatrical works, his contribution ranging from a single song in some instances to a lavishly produced full-scale “semi-opera”, such as The Fairy Queen.  To Restoration theatregoers the stage meant drama – and drama filled with action.  Whether that action be violent, comic or romantic (or sexual) mattered little.  It was bawdy, cynical stuff that frequently encompassed politically subversive sub-texts with thinly veiled references to contemporary events.


The English may have loved their plays, but their attitude to opera was (and would long remain) far more ambivalent.  Despite the royal patent (referred to above) granted by Charles 1 and the erection of the lavishly equipped Dorset Garden’s Theatre in 1671 specifically for the staging of spectacular shows and opera, financial exigencies dictated that neither Italian nor the fledgling native opera made much progress.  There were isolated exceptions.  In 1685 the first surviving full-length opera in English, Albion and Albanius, with music by Grabu and a text by Dryden, was mounted but fated to failure  by coinciding with the Duke of Monmouth’s bloodily repressed uprising.  Less ambitious in scale are two masterpieces that stand amongst the glories of Restoration music, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and the work that clearly inspired it, Blow’s Venus and Adonis, the latter still a vastly underrated piece that fully deserves its place alongside Purcell’s more familiar work.  Purcell’s answer to English reluctance to unequivocally embrace all-sung stage work is to be found in the so-called “semi-operas” of his final years.  These hybrid works incorporating elements of the old court masque with its juxtaposition of air, dance and spoken dialogue reach their apogee in The Fairy Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first produced at enormous expense at the Dorset Garden’s Theatre in 1692.

It is interesting but ultimately idle to speculate on what might have developed from Purcell’s theatrical career had his life not been cruelly cut short on 21 November 1695.  The face of his London had undergone many changes during the 36 years he had lived there.  His old teacher and friend Blow, now restored to the organist’s loft at Westminster Abbey, would live on until 1708.  But with Purcell’s death the glorious era of Restoration music was ended, left in a vacuum eloquently recognised by Dryden in the final lines of Mark how the lark and linnet sing, the ode so movingly set by Blow: “The gods are pleased alone with Purcell’s lays, Nor know to mend their choice”.  It was a felicitous choice that would not be mended in a hurry.

This article originally appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine, no. 2 (1998). Copyright 2016 Brian Robins

This educational site is funded almost entirely by the donations of those who value and appreciate its content. If you can help by making a donation your generosity will be greatly appreciated. Should you prefer to make a $ or euro donation you can do so on the Home Page.

bottom of page