Margaret Campbell doesn't directly tackle the question of what gives his genius such endurance, but she edges towards it with contextual detail, glimpses of musical life in 17th-century London, supported by a Reader's Digest scan of the scant biographical evidence.
She starts with a boy born in 1659, the year before the restoration of the monarchy, and raised in a city piecing itself together after civil war, plague and the Great Fire. His father and uncle were Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal and Henry followed suit. He sang in the Chapel until his voice broke, at 14 became Assistant Keeper of the king's instruments, at 18 Composer-in-Ordinary to the King, then Organist of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal.
Purcell remained at court until he died, aged 36, and might seem to have enjoyed the stable routine of a privileged civil servant: the equivalent of a TV weatherman who works to order at the Met Office but finds popular fame. For the court he supplied liturgical, commemorative and propagandist music lauding the monarch; for the streets it was catches, songs and theatre music.
He worked under no less than four administrations, with an accompanying turnover of musical and religious regimes. Under Charles II, court music was finding its feet again after the hiatus of the commonwealth, when choirs were disbanded and organs dismembered. But Charles's cultural tastes were French, and his interest in the Chapel Royal was variable. The Catholic James II set up a rival, Popish institution with its own musicians - to the disadvantage of the Protestant Purcell. With the arrival of William and Mary, Purcell was restored to favour, but William proved an absentee (and unmusical) employer; so it is unsurprising that by this time Purcell was devoting much of his creativity to writing for the theatre. If nothing else, theatre paid. The Treasury was by comparison unreliable: Henry's uncle was owed pounds 200 12s 6d at his death, and five years later his widow was still petitioning for it.
It was with theatre songs that Purcell developed an unsurpassed genius for responsive and expressive word-setting, forged through contact with writers such as Dryden. And it was in the theatre that he achieved the unique distinction of Dido and Aeneas, the only genuine, successful English-language opera before this century. At the time, the British public seemed only to want 'semi-operas', plays with musical infill where the lesser characters and choruses would sing but major characters would speak. Most of Purcell's theatre work was in this genre. Only Dido took things further - and Dido was probably written not for the professional stage but for a girl's school in the country suburb of Chelsea.
The date and circumstances of the premiere of Dido are issues of contention in Purcell scholarship, and Ms Campbell dutifully lays out the arguments, though without adding any scholarship or argument of her own. Nor does she flinch from commonplaces. I lost count of how often she wrote that 'time was running out for the great composer' as it will do for this modestly diverting study, come Purcell's anniversary.Reuse content