Henry Purcell: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Henry Purcell is regarded by many today as the greatest English composer of all time. Although his life was brief, he left a large body of work. This lesson will examine his life and music.

A Sad Day for England

On November 21, 1695 England lost their beloved and revered composer, Henry Purcell. His music had brought much needed respect to the British Isles, and all of Europe recognized his talent. The question on everyone's mind was how to honor the man. Where should the genius of England be laid to rest? Before we get to the answer, let's learn a little more about why Purcell was such a big deal.

Painting of Henry Purcell by John Closterman.
Painting of Henry Purcell

Purcell's Life

Henry Purcell's origins are a bit obscure. He was born circa 1659 in London, England. His father was employed at the Chapel Royal, a training ground for court musicians. Henry was a chorister there as a young boy. He had at least three brothers, Edward, Daniel, and Joseph. Daniel was also a composer and ended up completing some of the work Henry left unfinished at his death.

After the young Henry's voice changed, he continued to work for the court in a variety of music positions. These positions included keeper of the king's instruments, organist, composer, and organ tuner. His most important appointments were as organist for Westminster Abbey and organist for the Chapel Royal. He spent his entire life in Westminster, employed in the service of James II, William III, and Mary.

Westminster Abbey
Photo of Westminster Abbey

Purcell married in 1680 or 1681. We know of six children, three of whom survived into adulthood. One of the three, Edward, became a musician, as did his son, Edward Henry.

Henry Purcell died of tuberculosis on November 21, 1695 in London. To honor his stature as the most important English composer of his day, he was buried under the organ of Westminster Abbey. His wife continued to publish his music posthumously, including the famous collection of songs known as Orpheus Britannicus.

Purcell's Music

Purcell began composing at a very young age. At age eight he wrote a three-part song for Catch That Catch Can, a volume of catches, rounds, and part songs. In music a catch was a humorous song for multiple voices sung in a round, much like we sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat today. Purcell must have enjoyed this type of song as he composed over 50 catches in his lifetime.

Manuscript of an instrumental work.
A Henry Purcell manuscript

Purcell composed many works for organ, harpsichord, strings, and other instruments. Concerts of instrumental music were just beginning to flourish in London, and Purcell took advantage of the talented players and opportunities that were emerging. At the age of 24 he was commissioned by a new 'Musical Society' to compose an Ode in honor of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. This was the first of three such Odes he would write.

Henry Purcell also wrote music for the Anglican worship service. Baroque period church music was usually ornate and polyphonic. Polyphony was music that used more than one melody of equal importance at the same time. As you can imagine, this made for very intricate music that was often difficult to follow and understand. Purcell could and did use polyphony; however, he was skilled in writing the anthem, a distinctly English choral genre. The anthem was a sacred choral work that had one melody accompanied by harmony. Awake, Put on They Strength is a popular Purcell anthem still performed today.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account