Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Opera and Vocal Music in the Late Seventeenth Century

Composer Biographies

Henry Purcell

Born: 1659

Died: November 21, 1695, London, England

In his own words . . .

"Poetry and painting have arrived to their perfection in our own country; music is yet but in its nonage [immaturity], a forward Child, which gives hope of what it may be hereafter in England, when the masters of it shall find more Encouragement."

English Composer. Most important English composer of the early Baroque.

Henry Purcell spent his entire career as a musician in the English royal court in various capacities. He began as a singer in the Chapel Royal as a boy. When his voice broke in 1673, he was named an assistant to John Hingeston, the keeper of the king's instruments. Ten years later, he succeeded Hingeston in the position. In 1677, he was appointed a composer to the king. A series of other court appointments finally led to his taking the position of organist at Westminster Abbey in 1679, and in 1682, he was appointed organist to the Chapel Royal.

Purcell is probably best known for his dramatic works, including songs and instrumental music for some forty plays. His one true opera (short as it is) was Dido and Aeneas, written for a girls' school in Chelsea. A larger work, The Fairy Queen, based loosely on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, was a royal entertainment with music. It, along with a number of his other works, is often described as a semi-opera. His most famous choral work is his Ode to St. Cecelia, but he also wrote more than fifty anthems and numerous other sacred pieces and songs. In these works, his response to the text can be quite moving, and his settings of sorrowful texts often contain surprisingly harsh dissonances. Purcell's instrumental music, especially his fantasies, shows his mastery of contrapuntal technique.


  • Dramatic music, including Dido and Aeneas (1689) and The Fairy Queen (1692)

  • Incidental music for plays

  • Sacred vocal music, including a Magnificat, a Te Deum, and anthems

  • Secular vocal music, including court odes

  • Instrumental music, including fantasias, sonatas, marches, overtures, and harpsichord suites and dances

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Musical Examples

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