Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Henry Purcell and British Music Restored!

Henry Purcell (1659-1695), portrait by John Closterman, circa 1695
Henry Purcell (1659-1695), portrait by John Closterman, circa 1695

We mark the death on November 21, 1695 – 327 years ago today – of the English composer and organist Henry Purcell, in London. He lies buried today in a place of singular honor, adjacent to the organ on which he performed in Westminster Abbey in London. He had been born there in London on (or about) September 10, 1659, making him only 36 years old when he died. But like both Mozart and Schubert after him, Purcell’s terribly premature death did not preclude him from writing a tremendous amount of music of the very highest quality.

Purcell’s music – sacred and secular – utterly defined his time, a time known in British history as the Restoration.


I know that the realtors among us will tell us that in the end, everything is all about location, location, and location. Well, sorry to disagree but, in fact, in the end, nothing is more important than timing, timing, and timing. Hey: I love the city of Paris; it is my favorite urban location. But a successful visit to that magnificent location is dependent on timing.

Black Death victims unearthed in central Paris in 2014
Black Death victims unearthed in central Paris in 2014

Had I chosen to visit in August 1348, I would have arrived simultaneously with the Black Death and may very well have perished along with roughly 80,000 Parisians, fully one-third of the population.

When I bought my first house in 1986, I would have loved to have been able to buy one in a location called Piedmont, a lovely enclave located in the heart of Oakland.

Typical Piedmont shack, currently on sale for a cool $16.8 million
Typical Piedmont shack, currently on sale for a cool $16.8 million

A great location, yes. But I (we; my wife and I) couldn’t buy in Piedmont because we didn’t have the bucks at the time (or at any time, for that matter). The message? Location without timing is useless.

So: location verses timing. Henry Purcell could have been born in any major metropolitan area in England in 1659: in London, Norwich, York, Bristol, Newcastle, Exeter, Ipswich, Great Yarmouth, or Oxford. Every one of those locations had institutions that would have allowed Purcell to be educated as a musician. But the extraordinary opportunities that allowed him to not just become a composer but to thrive as a composer were strictly a matter of timing.

Writes Robert King:

“Purcell began his musical upbringing as a boy chorister. There is nothing inherently unusual about that, for many British musicians have, over the years, been fortunate enough to have that unequalled education. But had he been born just a few years earlier, this [Purcell’s musical education] would have been impossible. Fortunately, within a few months of his birth the puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell came to an end, and the monarchy and the Anglican Church were restored to Britain, releasing with it a burst of musical creativity and life that has never since been repeated. By the 1680s, when Purcell’s genius was flowering, London was buzzing with newly written music for the church, the royal and private chapels, the newly founded concert halls, the theaters and even the taverns.”


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