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Henry Purcell's early musical training was as a chorister at Westminster Abbey. By 1673 Purcell's voice had broken, and his first job was as the Abbey's 'keeper, mender, maker, repairer and tuner of the regals, organs, virginals, flutes and recorders and all other kinds of wind instruments whatsoever'. In 1679 he was promoted to organist, but his career as a Protestant church musician was cut short after the succession of the openly Catholic James II in 1685. The king retrenched his musical establishment, and, as a direct consequence, the Anglican composer's ability to earn a living suffered.
James Us reign was short, but after the so-called 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688/9, Purcell remained out of canter with the new regime under William III, who was disinterested in music, and Queen Mary, who admired Purcell's music but had only limited scope for employing musicians at court. Deprived of the opportunities to write church music that he had once enjoyed, the composer turned to the theatre in order to make a living, but he was already an experienced composer of songs. Purcell's song 'Retired from any mortal's sight' was performed in Nahum Tate's The Sicilian Usurper, or The History of King Richard II in December 1680, and during the mid-1680's he probably composed his setting of 'O Solitude', a poem by Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant translated into English by Katherine Philips (it was first published in Book IV of The Theater of Music in 1687). Moreover, he also composed devotional religious songs, such as William Fuller's 'Now that the sun hath veiled his light' ('An Evening Hymn', which was published in Volume 1 of Harmonia Sacra in 1688). During the early 1690s Purcell created music for several extravagant operatic entertainments. The Fairy Queen is an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream that was produced by the Dorset Garden Theatre impresario Thomas Betterton in 1693. Most of Purcell's instrumental movements, songs and masques grow organically from opportune occasions for song or dance with the plot of Shakespeare's play, and often connects metaphorically with the important themes of the play, and expands upon them: poetic imagination and faerie, retreat to the wildwood, love and marriage, and the complementary realms of moonlight and sunlight. For example, "Thrice happy lovers' is a pertinent anticipation of the happy ending in Act V, although the happy resolution of the plot makes the tragic tone of "The Plaint' appear incongruous; the latter song is not in Purcell's autograph score, and may be a later addition.
Another echo of Shakespeare is implied in Colonel Henry Heveningham's text for the song 'If music be the food of love', which emulates the first line of Twelfth Night. We do not know exactly when or why Purcell composed this song, but there are several different versions: the first was first published in the Gentleman's Journal in June 1692, but a year later it was published in Heptinstall's Comes Amori in a revised form (the version recorded here). The Italianate song 'Not all my torments' probably dates from the same period (c. late 1693).
Purcell's most significant literary collaborator was the ex-Poet Laureate John Dryden, a Catholic convert who, like the composer, suffered from the shifting sands of court politics. One of their earliest artistic interactions might have been The Prophetess, or, The History of Dioclesian, performed at Dorset Garden in 1690. An old play by Beaumont and Fletcher originally licensed in 1622, it was adapted into an operatic entertainment by Better ton, but Dryden provided a new prologue that was politically controversial in its criticism of William III (it was subsequently suppressed), and perhaps one or two song texts. Perhaps impressed by Purcell's word-painting in songs such as 'Since from my dear Astrea's sight', Dryden soon collaborated with the composer on the immensely successful opera King Arthur or The British Worthy, premiered in May or June 1691. The poet had been seriously contemplating a 'Heroick Poem' on the subject of King Arthur conquering the Saxons since 1684, and the plot bears little resemblance to the familiar legends of Excalibur, the Round Table, and the Holy Grail. Arthur, King of the Britons, endeavours to subdue the heathen Saxons, who are led by Oswald and the sorcerer Grimbald. After narrowly escaping several dangerous magical traps, Arthur defeats Oswald in single combat, and Merlin prophecies that the Britons and Saxons will become a united, prosperous nation; during the final masque Venus descends and extols the virtues of Britain and its inhabitants in 'Fairest isle'. Dryden judged that in Purcell's "Artful Hands" music had "arriv'd to a greater Perfection in England, than ever formerly", although the literary man slyly commented that his verses were somewhat compromised in order to be appropriately subservient to Purcell's music. The poet clearly did not mind too much because in autumn 1692 he provided words for a dramatic incantation scene and the famous song 'Music for a while' for a revival of Nathaniel Lee's play Oedipus, King of Thebes.
Purcell was notably prolific during 1695, although this proved to be his last year. 'Sweeter than roses' was written for Richard Norton's tragedy Pausanius, the Betrayer of his Country, 'From rosy bow'rs' was composed for Thomas D'Urfey's The Comical History of Don Quixote, and 'O lead me to some peaceful gloom' was probably intended as part of Purcell's impressive suite of incidental music for the tragedy Bonduca, or The British Heroine. Dryden and Purcell probably collaborated again for the final time on an ill-fated revival of The Indian Queen. The first version of the play, written by Dryden and his estranged brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard, had appeared on the London stage more than thirty years previously. 'I attempt from love's sickness' is a brief and charming song, although its dramatic context is not evident from any of the surviving sources. Theatre politics led Thomas Betterton and his actors to leave Dorset Garden, leaving Purcell to remain committed to working under the unpopular manager Christopher Rich, and causing for the opera to be performed by inexperienced children. It was probably during preparations for The Indian Queen that Purcell died on 21 November 1695 (his cousin Daniel completed and supervised the music for the first known performance on 29 April 1696). At the time of his death, Henry Purcell was widely recognized as the greatest composer of sacred, theatre and domestic music working in London. In 1698 the music publisher Playford produced the first volume of Orpheus Brittanicus, a posthumous collection of the composer's finest songs, which acknowledged him as the 'English Orpheus'. Purcell's reputation seems equally assured today owing to the popularity of Dido and Aeneas. But his stature among classical music lovers has not always been secure, and during the mid-20th century his music needed champions.
One of the most important Purcellian pioneers of the modern era was Alfred Deller (b. 31 May 1912). The unique countertenor blazed a trail for Purcell's music as a solo singer, often under the direction of fellow revivalist Sir Michael Tippett, including a performance of the ode Come, ye sons of art which inaugurated the BBC's Third Programme - the forerunner of the modern-day Radio 3 - in 1946. Deller also promoted Purcell's music with his own innovative group of players and singers the Deller Consort (which he founded in 1950) and in many solo song recitals. An interpreter of considerable subtlety, he tirelessly promoted his core repertoire of Elizabethan lute songs and Purcell throughout his career. This recital anthology was recorded at Provence only three months before Deller's death at Bologna on 16 July 1979. His performance practice and editorial decisions about texts would doubtless have been different had he been an active 'early music' performer a generation (or two) later, but his pragmatic flexibility for tailoring music to the circumstances is a perfectly valid aspect of historical authenticity. Some of the more familiar songs here, such as 'Fairest isle', were originally conceived as operatic music for soprano voice, but one cannot imagine that Purcell would have minded Deller taking the music out of context, adapting it if desirable, and making it his own.
- David Vickers (2008)