Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was the son of a musician at the court of Charles II in the 1660s. No record of his baptism has been found, but he was probably born in late 1658 or in 1659, as he described himself as aged 24 in 1683, and a memorial inscription in Westminster Abbey records that he was in his 37th year when he died in November 1695.
The young Henry became a choir-boy at the Chapel Royal and, after his voice broke in 1673, he was given the post of assistant to John Hingeston, tuning and maintaining the organ and other instruments. From time to time, he was also paid for copying out music by other composers, and he would have learnt much from this, as well as from the formal music training he received as a choir-boy.
In 1677, he was given his first job as a court composer, for the ‘Twenty-four Violins’, the king’s band of stringed instruments. Towards the end of 1679, he also became organist of Westminster Abbey, taking over from John Blow. Soon afterwards, Purcell married Frances Peters, with whom he would have at least six children, though only two survived to adulthood.
Purcell’s post of composer to the Twenty-four Violins did not restrict him to writing instrumental music. By 1680, he had composed a large number of anthems, many with instrumental accompaniment, together with songs, music for the burial service, sacred part-songs and music for viol consort.
During the 1680s, Purcell was frequently called upon to compose a large-scale ode or ‘welcome song’ to mark a special event in the royal calendar. In 1682, he was appointed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and, in the following year, his first published collection appeared. This was the Sonnata’s of III. Parts, for two violins, bass viol and continuo. His best-known composition, the dramatic entertainment Dido and Aeneas, was also written during the 1680s, though it is not certain when the first performance took place.
In 1689, William and Mary were crowned King and Queen, and there seem to have been fewer opportunities at court for composers than under their predecessors, Charles II and James II. Purcell turned to the theatre, writing four large-scale operatic works between 1690 and 1695, as well as incidental music for numerous plays. He continued to write court odes, however, including one each year between 1689 and 1694 to mark the birthday of Queen Mary. He also composed music for her state funeral, which took place in March 1695. Just a few months later, on 21 November 1695, Purcell himself died.