At a Glance
Henry Purcell’s lifetime (1659–1695) coincides almost
exactly with the period known as the Restoration, following the restrictive
Puritan era in 1660. Until his 30th year, Purcell was chiefly a composer of
pious church music and pieces for festive occasions at court. When in 1688
William and Mary evinced less and less demand for court music, Purcell moved
into the theatrical field and created most of his more than 40 scores for the
theater in the last five years of his life.
The Restoration period long suffered from an extremely bad reputation among
theater historians and Shakespeare scholars, while musicologists were
accustomed to bewail with deep sighs the fact that with the exception of his
only “true” opera Dido and Aeneas,
Purcell had frittered away his genius on a bastardized form of musical theater.
Admittedly, Purcell’s music, which was handed down in collections of songs
compiled after his death, escaped condemnation and was held in high regard; but
the contexts in which these pieces had originated now disappeared. It may be
doubted whether his subsequent beatification did Purcell justice, for Britain’s
honorary Orpheus was a child of his time, and his art was rich and flexible
enough to encompass its contradictory tendencies.