BOOK REVIEW / In the wake of the good ship Henry Purcell: Henry Purcell: Glory of his Age - Margaret Campbell: Hutchinson, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
BIOGRAPHERS of those whose lives are thinly documented have a hazardous task. Each work is bound to follow a similar pattern, charting a course between landmarks that grow more familiar with each crossing, while attempting to leave a slightly different wake from that of the vessel ahead.

Margaret Campbell's biography follows those by Sir Jack Westrup and Franklin B Zimmerman. But while both Westrup and Zimmerman based their books on years of original research and editorial labours, Campbell has relied chiefly on secondary sources - for both documentation and interpretation. This is perhaps what gives her book something of a second-hand air.

The Purcell scholar is hampered not only by the scarcity of source material, but also by the fact that it is spread to the four corners of the globe, a sizeable chunk residing in the Tokyo College of Music's Nanki Library. A Japanese marquis on a shopping-spree at the turn of the century took back a splendid haul of documents, including the manuscript of The Fairy Queen, and was able to do so, of course, because British interest in Purcell had only just begun to revive after 200 years of neglect.

We are now approaching the tercentenary of his death at the age of 36, and a spate of biographical and critical material is eagerly awaited: in the meantime, the lay Purcellian has to rely on record-sleeve notes by the musicologists who have been doing the most important work of all: bringing Purcell's music to the ears of a new audience.

It is not merely in retrospect that Purcell was the glory of his age - the age of Dryden, Wren and Locke, all fellow pupils of the flogging headmaster of Westminster, Dr Richard Busby. For all that Purcell's career was cut short in its prime, it could not have got off to a more propitious start; like Mozart, he was was the son of a court musician (was it Thomas or Henry the elder who fathered him? Margaret Campbell, like Zimmerman, favours the latter, while Westrup still argues the case for the former) and was brought up in a milieu of professional music. He obtained his first post before he had finished school, and was occupied with the full range of court and chapel music until a few days before his death.

His list of completed work is huge, and it is only recently that the full range of it has become known outside the circle of specialists: bawdy catches with gaps left in the melody for the rude bits of the next line to poke through; anthems of the greatest power and majesty; theatre songs in every possible mood from glad to sad to raving mad; and early, complex, backward-looking fantasias for viols. Handel, his supplanter, admired this work deeply, and Purcell's death was lamented by odes from every pen - whereas what we could have done with was a scrap of Pepysian gossip, a few more sharp remarks from Evelyn, or a cutting anecdote from a contemporary.

Our difficulties with accepting Purcell as Britain's pre-eminent composer lie in the medium he was forced to use for the bulk of his secular music. It is hard to accept him as the greatest British operatic composer when he only left one opera, Dido and Aeneas, and that a miniature written for a girls' school and deemed impossible to stage by modern British opera companies.

The rest of his theatre music is semi-opera and incidental music for plays, and there is no use hoping for a revival of the settings that will show off the gems in any adequate way.

Where Margaret Campbell's biography is particularly serviceable is in showing the cultural background to Purcell's music in the fluctuating fortunes of the theatre at the time of the late Stuarts, as well as the growth of public concerts and the influence of French and Italian music on the native composers. For a more detailed study of Purcell's life and work, we shall probably have to wait until the tercentenary in 1995.