Anglican Notables – Henry Purcell (Musicians, Authors, & Poets) – 21 November

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Henry Purcell

Born 10 September 1659 (Westminster, England) – Died 21 November 1695 (Westminster, England)

Musician: Composer; Organist at Westminster Abbey; Gentleman [Layclerk] of the Chapel Royal

[The image is of one of Johann Clostermann’s portraits of Henry Purcell.]

              The Grove Dictionary of Music is not given to exaggeration.  So when its entry on Henry Purcell identifies him as “one of the most important 17th-century composers and one of the greatest of all English composers,”[1] this is a claim not easily gainsaid.  Note too that the comment does not restrict Purcell’s importance in the seventeenth century to England.  He achieved this prominence in seventeenth-century European music, which situates him as an important mid-point in the Baroque era—roughly from 1600 to 1750—between Claudio Monteverdi (another under-appreciated composer) and the two late-Baroque giants, Johann Sebastian Bach and G. F. Händel. 

Moreover, Purcell achieved this prominence while constructing a particularly English expression of the Baroque musical idiom.  (It is important to remember that composers generally had a more cosmopolitan or, as we might say today, trans-national perspective than is often thought to be the case.  To give only two examples, the music of William Byrd, in the Renaissance, was well known and highly respected by composers on the continent.  And G. F. Händel was a German who studied in Italy and became a British subject.)  Purcell’s particularly English expression of the Baroque was due in large part to his emotionally and intellectually sensitive settings of English texts.  This is an accomplishment worth considering, since one of the perennial either/or questions about composers is whether—when they write music that sets texts—the music serves the text or vice versa.  Classical Greek writers claimed the music of their era was an ideal balance between text and music.  But since they left us no reliable system of musical notation, we have to believe them or not.  As for those composers who have dared to leave a record of their creativity in the form of musical notation, few have managed to convince us that balancing text and music in perfect equipoise is possible for us mere mortals.  But many would argue that Purcell came close to this ideal.

A composer with this kind of success in setting texts would seem to be ideal for writing music for liturgy.  But Purcell’s music for the Church of England—whether based on Prayer Book texts or on other sacred texts—does not stand as his greatest achievement.  Simplification is especially dangerous where the Baroque is concerned, since the Baroque’s aesthetic sensibility is about exaggeration and complexity, not simplicity.  Yet, there is some truth in making a rather simple comparison between the gravitas and relative restraint of the language of the Prayer Book (and thus the ethos of Anglican liturgy generally, not to mention the basic Christian message of holiness through humility) and the fact that the Baroque aesthetic created opera, which, in that period, was not about restraint at all and was the genre in which the Monteverdis, the Lullys, the Purcells, and the Händels most sought to excel as artists.  (There is also the practical fact that this was the period in which composers with an entrepreneurial turn of mind recognized how remunerative writing for the theater rather than for the church or for the court could be.  Composing for performances at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, paid for Händel’s toney address in Mayfair much more effectively than did composing for the church.)

This is not to say that Purcell was not sensitive to what music for liturgy needed to be.  He was more of an Englishman than was Charles II, who had been raised in the French court and naturally expected to bring the French Baroque with him, including to the Chapel Royal.  But Charles’s expectations concerning liturgical music barely reached beyond his court.  England of this period had a refreshed love of earlier times, especially after the cultural depredations caused by the Puritans.  The language of the Prayer Book was not updated; the 1534 translation of the psalms was chosen as the authorized translation; and Gothic traditions in Anglican church building were consciously maintained.[2]  It was in this period that Anglicanism acquired a strong sense of its own identity.[3]  This was not a time to welcome contemporary musical fashions or theological/spiritual currents from the continent.  This period also regarded the Tudor era as the golden age of church music.[4]  So, when Purcell, the Englishman, wrote for the church, he knew that he had to find a “dignified compromise” by which to defend Anglican church music’s “quiet and disciplined ways” against Charles’s “frivolous instrumental hand,”[5] and the “frivolous instrumental hand” is a short-hand way of referring to the exaggeration of the Baroque aesthetic in general.

Edmund Fellowes’s assessment of church music of this period is generally favorable.  This is partly because he rightly gives Henry Purcell his due as a composer, devoting an entire chapter to Purcell alone.  But Fellowes concedes that Purcell’s music does not appear frequently on the cathedral music-lists (as of 1941, when Fellowes’s book was published);[6] that a number of Purcell’s anthems with symphonies for strings are “in the nature of short Cantatas rather than Anthems,”[7] which is to say that they are closer to concert works than not; that Purcell’s Service music (written for the actual liturgical texts, as opposed to the anthems, which are regarded as para-liturgical) “are of no great importance”;[8] and that “Hear My Prayer” and “Remember Not,” two short anthems, which, being short, are less likely to turn liturgy into a concert, are Purcell’s best.[9]  Moreover, Fellowes offers only a wan defense against Hubert Parry’s charge that Purcell’s church music differed from “the old devotional Church music” because of its extravagance.[10]

As Purcell knew, the Anglican patrimony’s theological/spiritual identity is catholic enough to allow a healthy respect for the Baroque’s love of the exaggerated and the grandiose.  But this respect includes a realistic appraisal of the Baroque’s limitations in the Anglican context.  Anglican reserve (both cultural and theological, as if the two can truly be dissociated) contributes to this realistic appraisal as does homeliness in Julian of Norwich’s and Richard Rolle’s sense, i.e. domestic, even quotidian and every-day[11] (which is also the ethos of the Rule of St. Benedict, so important in English spirituality).  But when the season or occasion calls for musical extravagance, even in the “homeliness” of Anglican liturgy, we who cherish the Anglican patrimony are thankful for Purcell’s magnificent contribution.


[1] https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-6002278249?rskey=vARW0A

      [2] Nicholas Temperley’s “Anglican and Episcopalian Church Music,” Grove Music Online at http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/ – accessed November 15, 2006.

      [3] “As a Church [the Church of England in the Restoration period] was very self-conscious of its purification from popery and its repudiation of Calvinism, and it stood as the Church of the land, of the English people …”  J. R. H. Moorman, The Anglican Spiritual Tradition (Springfield, Illinois: Templegate, 1983), 126.

      [4] Temperley, “Anglican and Episcopalian Church Music.”

      [5] Christopher Palmer, Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration (London: Thames, 1992),397

Palmer, Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration, 397.

      [6] Edmund Fellowes, English Cathedral Music from Edward VI to Edward VII (London: Methuen & Company, 1941), 157.  This is still the case according to John Patton’s A Century of Cathedral Music 1898-1998: A Comparison with Previous Music Surveys (Winchester: John Patton, 2000), 88-89.  Patton’s survey does not claim to be entirely thorough or accurate.  It is reassuringly extensive, however.

      [7] Fellowes, 163.

      [8] Fellowes, 170.

      [9] Fellowes, 160-161.

      [10] Fellowes, 157.

[11] Homeliness and Courtesy in Julian of Norwich (umilta.net)

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