Purcell was born into a family of court musicians the year before Charles II was invited to restore the monarchy. The Restoration was a time of new theatres, a new court orchestra and a new Chapel Royal with the brightest crop of new boys ever known: John Blow, Pelham Humfrey, Michael Wise and Purcell. Their teacher was the kindly Captain Cooke and, outside the Chapel, Purcell came under the influence of the worldly and slightly mad Matthew Locke who introduced him to the delights of the theatre and prepared him for the realities of working as a musician in London.
Purcell’s talents were recognised early and he was appointed Organist of Westminster Abbey at the age of 20. In the 1680s, when he was spectacularly realising his early promise, the pattern of his work was composing anthems and service music for the Abbey and the Chapel Royal. Altogether more extrovert were the one-off odes, royal welcome and birthday songs. When off duty, he studied the old consort music of Byrd and Gibbons and wrote a collection of the finest of all viol fantasias for private performance and, one assumes, his own edification. He also ventured into print with a set of Italianate sonatas for two violins and bass.
For a composer who wrote in every genre known in England at the time, there is nevertheless a thread which runs throughout Purcell’s career: the song. He was a master of setting English words to music, a genius recognised during his lifetime and afterwards.
With the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, the exile of James II and the arrival of William and Mary, Purcell’s career became richer and more diverse. The Chapel Royal had suffered less than one might expect under the Roman Catholic regime, but Queen Mary breathed new life into the arts, becoming a patron like no other Purcell ever knew. The odes he wrote for her birthdays include some of his best music.
From 1690, when he was 31 years old, until the day he died, Purcell produced a huge amount of music of the highest quality. All his major stage works fall within this time, as do the Queen Mary odes, Hail, bright Cecilia, the huge collection of hymns and religious dialogues called Harmonia sacra, the theatre suites and a flood of individual vocal pieces for all occasions, collected and published posthumously as Orpheus Britannicus, the alpha and omega of English song.
The largest of the works from this final period are the semi-operas Dioclesian, King Arthur, The Fairy Queenand The Indian Queen. These are elaborately staged plays with extensive incidental music, masques, pageants and ballet sequences.