Mourning glory

All of a sudden Henry Purcell is everywhere. Michael White offers a beginners' guide to the composer who died 300 years ago next month
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WHEN THE Germans used to write Britain off as "das Land ohne Musik" they spoke false: music follows money, and London has always been rich enough to attract performing musicians by the boat-load. But creative musicians are another matter; and it's unfortunately true that we managed to pass through two centuries - the 1700s and 1800s - without a native- born composer of obvious greatness. In effect, it was an auditory Dark Age, and it began with the death of Henry Purcell in 1695 - which is, accordingly, a significant date in our cultural almanac.

For many listeners Purcell is also the most significant composer these islands have ever produced. He was celebrated in his own lifetime, nationally mourned at his death (at 36), and largely immune to the fall from grace that usually follows. But apart from a few choice items like the Lament from Dido and Aeneas and the Rondo from Abdelazar which would pass any Classic FM test of housewife-awareness, Purcell until recently remained a musician's musician: known in church circles, revered for his English word-setting, but otherwise under-explored.

The reasons are easy to understand. On the one hand, much of his music was written for large-scale entertainments which are hard to stage. On the other, his life-story has never lent itself to the popular imagination, because so few details survive.

But whatever his personal circumstances, he was close to great events and lived through more of them than most of us could cope with. The end of Cromwell's Commonwealth, the Restoration of the Monarchy, three Kings, one Queen, a bloodless revolution, the Plague and the Fire of London all fell within those 36 years; and as a man of prominence in royal service, he would have experienced the turmoil and turnover very directly.

Born into a family of court musicians in 1659, he was raised as a chorister in a Chapel Royal which had just come back into being after the Puritan purge and was surviving on air and promises. Charles II liked music and afforded it a remarkable priority given the demands that restoring the machinery of state must have made. But he had no money to pay his musicians, often forcing them into penury.

Against that background Purcell began to collect court appointments: singing, playing the organ in Westminster Abbey, maintaining the royal instruments and composing - largely choral music for Anglican worship but venturing into secular "odes" which flattered the King with allusions to political and territorial conquests.

In 1685 Charles was succeeded by James II who happened to be Roman Catholic and unconcerned about the Chapel Royal. The commissions dried up and Purcell found work elsewhere: on the street, where he became London's leading songwriter, famous for ale-house catches which could be raw to the point of obscenity.

Three years later, when James was replaced by the Protestant William and Mary, Purcell's future at court looked brighter. But William turned out to be preoccupied with overseas wars, and as the demand for royal music declined still further - with the notable exception of state observances like Mary's funeral - Purcell became increasingly involved in the commercial marketplace. The last years of his life were largely given over to the theatre, with a series of semi-operas - Dioclesian, King Arthur, The Fairy Queen, The Indian Queen - that dominated the London stage much as Lloyd Webber's musicals do today. And musicals is a fair description of these late scores in that they are a not-always-serious cocktail of song, dance and spectacle where the real action is in spoken dialogue. The music tends to be confined to masque-like interludes that enjoy a tenuous relationship with the plot: hence the problem of presentation to a modern audience.

But there is one stage score by Purcell that presents fewer problems and, accordingly, has flourished: Dido and Aeneas, which predates the semi-operas and differs from them in that it is small-scale, with an entirely sung text. In other words a "true" opera rather than "semi". It was probably written not for the commercial stage but for a girls' school run by one Josias Priest, whose secondary profession as a choreographer accounts for the proliferation of dance numbers.

That the first great English opera - as Dido undoubtedly is - happens to be rather short and for schoolgirls is one of those bathetic points of detail which cut history down to size. But there is no denying its status 300 years on. It has become the calling-card of a composer who, apart from his local prominence, was almost certainly the supreme composer, anywhere, of his time. Even with Elgar, Britten, Walton, Tippett and Vaughan Williams, we have never managed that again.

! Events include: 'Fairy Queen', ENO (0171 632 8300), from Thurs; 'Dido', B'ham Symphony Hall (0121 212 3333), 20 Nov; Purcell Weekend (inc. 'Fairy Queen', 'Indian Queen', 'Dioclesian'), Barbican (0171 638 8891), 17- 21 Nov.