Thursday, September 10, 2009

Henry Purcell

Today is the 350th birthday of composer Henry Purcell. He was born in London, not far from Westminster Abbey, where he would be organist for many years and where he was eventually buried. His father was a well-known singer and his younger brother Daniel was also a composer (who completed the music for the “semi-opera” The Indian Queen after Henry's death).

Purcell's musical teachers included composers Pelham Humfrey and John Blow, though his talent and fame would eventually outstrip theirs. His composing career was somewhat bookended by associations with people in the “hymn business” (technically, in Purcell's time, it was really still the “psalm business”). Some of his earlier secular compositions appeared in books published by John Playford, whose most relevant book here is probably The Whole Book of Psalmes (1661), which contained some psalm tunes that were sung for a few hundred years thereafter. Toward the end of his life, Purcell's short opera Dido and Aeneas (1689) was written to a libretto by Nahum Tate, who with Nicholas Brady wrote A New Version of the Psalms of David (1696), the psalter that became the most widely used in English-speaking countries; some of the Tate and Brady psalms are still sung today.

While Purcell did not write four-part hymn tunes as we know them, some of his music was later arranged to be used with hymn texts, such as (perhaps) this one.

In the beginning was the Word:
Amid chaotic night
It gleamed with quick creative pow'r
And there was life and light!

Thy Word, O God, is living yet,
Amid earth's restless strife
New harmony creating still,
And ever higher life.

O Word that broke the stillness first,
Sound on! and never cease,
Till all earth's shadows be made light
And all its discord peace!

Till, wail of woe and clank of chain
And heat of battle stilled,
The world with thy great music's pulse,
O Word of Love! be thrilled.

Till selfish passion, strife, and wrong
Thy summons shall have heard,
And thy creation be complete,
O thou Eternal Word!

Samuel Longfellow, 1864; alt.
from Henry Purcell, 17th cent. (?)

This tune was first published in 1721 in the elaborately-titled A Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes, Hymns and Anthems, For the Delight and Improvement of All who are Truly Lovers of Divine Musick. The book was compiled by William Anchors, who neglected to identify the composers of any of the pieces. Some later sources then attributed the tune to Purcell, while others continued to identify the tune as “anonymous.” Since it is associated with Henry Purcell in many places, I'll claim it for today.

One Year Ago: Henry Purcell

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