Pride, Prejudice, and Mr. Purcell

Pride, Prejudice, and Mr. Purcell

Welcome to the Library’s first music feature! Every other Wednesday, alternating with Susan’s art posts, you’ll meet a famous composer of classical music. The composers I’ve selected are ones that I feel are particularly accessible to children, because of the themes of the compositions and the availability of children’s books and other resources on the composer. Alas, there are no books or other resources, of which I’m aware, on Karl von Dittersdorf, who composed a harp concerto I wanted to share with you. 🙁 Fortunately, however, there is no shortage of composers of beautiful music.

Our inaugural post features Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Purcell (pronounced “PER-suhl”) was born into an English musical family that lived just down the street from Westminster Abbey in London. Henry’s father died when Henry was young, and Henry became a ward of his uncle Thomas. Happily, this scenario ended better than your average Dickens story: Thomas was not only a kindly man, but he was also a musician who encouraged Henry in his musical pursuits. Henry began composing around 1670, and three years later he became an apprentice to an organ maker in the service of King Charles II. Henry went on to become a prolific composer of sacred music, music for special occasions in the Royal Family, and music for the theater.

One of Purcell’s works for the stage was an opera based on the legend of Dido and Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido, the Queen of Carthage, is in love with Aeneas, a hero of ancient Troy. The dramatization of their ill-starred love affair ends with the beautiful, tragic aria “Dido’s Lament,” which has been called one of the saddest songs ever written. You can watch a performance of this song by the Peninsula Teen Opera of San Francisco here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jv-wscIZo4

Henry died at a fairly young age. One theory is that he died of tuberculosis; another is that he succumbed to complications of a cold that he developed when he came home late one chilly night from the theater and was locked out of the house by his wife Frances. Henry is buried next to the organ in Westminster Abbey. A bronze statue in his memory stands in a nearby park.

Henry Purcell is considered one of the greatest English composers. One of his works — “Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of Our Hearts” — was sung at his own funeral, and it has been performed at every British state funeral (including that of the late Diana, Princess of Wales) ever since. You can listen to a performance of it by the Choir of Guildford Cathedral, here:  https://youtu.be/TVaOKC60GAU

The music of Henry Purcell also lives on in a classic 20th century composition by another English composer: Benjamin Britten. The composition is called “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” and it is a must for every homeschool! This work begins with a theme from the second movement in Purcell’s “Abdelazar” suite. Following this introduction, Britten has the instruments of the orchestra present themselves, musically, one by one, in variations on the theme. When all of the instrument families have been introduced, they reappear in order, playing a new tune by Britten and building on one another until all join together as Britten weaves Purcell’s 17th century theme and his own 20th century tune into a glorious finale. This work is available in book-and-CD form, and you can also watch a performance of it (with subtitles, so you know what’s happening) by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (an online collaborative orchestra) conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbVRn3q3fEw

Check your library for recordings of Purcell’s works, including the book-and-CD of “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” There’s also a book-and-CD set of the life and work of Purcell from First Discovery; the book is written to an elementary or pre-teen audience, and the CD includes not only narration of the text but representative works of Purcell. 

And last, a special bonus bit of trivia for fans of the movie “Pride and Prejudice”: Purcell’s “Abdelazar” theme can be heard in a dance at the Netherfield Ball.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynwllLcVKyg

Lucy Watson

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