Music Henry Purcell
Andrew Woolley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0034


Henry Purcell (b. 1659?–d. 1695) is considered a major 17th-century composer and a luminary of English musical history. It is recognized that he consolidated English musical traditions stemming back to the middle of the 16th century and drew particularly upon Italian-style music of the 17th, reinventing and building upon them in highly inventive ways. For much of his life he followed a career pattern similar to those of his predecessors, being engaged principally as a composer for the Chapel Royal and the court. From the early 1670s and during the 1680s he composed orchestral anthems and other sacred music, ceremonial, and other large-scale non-dramatic works in addition to Dido and Aeneas, consort music, other kinds of secular vocal music, and keyboard music. Later he energetically turned to composing for the theater, and in the process contributing to the development of “dramatick opera”; in this sense his life and work can be seen as anticipating the more commercial milieu of the 18th century. Although important publications of Purcell’s music appeared during his lifetime, a large quantity of it was published posthumously in an unprecedented series of collections. This began with A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet in 1696, and concluded with Orpheus Britannicus: A Collection of the Choicest Songs, The Second Book in 1702. He was widely eulogized after his untimely death, notably by those who wrote poetic elegies to him that appeared in Orpheus Britannicus in 1698, in which the publisher Henry Playford commented on his “peculiar Genius to express the Energy of English Words.” The nature of the early reception of Purcell’s music has had a powerful and lasting influence on the composer’s reputation since the 18th century. Only in comparatively recent years have scholars come to a more sophisticated understanding of the sources and the composer’s working environments.

Catalogues, Research Aids

The catalogue of Purcell’s works, Zimmerman 1963, remains an important starting point for research on the composer; minor updates of it is provided by Holman and Thompson. A comprehensive and detailed review of the manuscript sources is Shay and Thompson 2000, while Burden 1995 brings together transcriptions of documents relevant to Purcell’s life. Zimmerman 1975 offers two lists of coded incipits for Purcell’s works, while Zimmerman 1989 is a research guide to be used in conjunction with Zimmerman 1963. An important guide to more current research is Herissone 2012.

  • Burden, Michael, ed. Purcell Remembered. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

    Collects transcriptions of documents relating to Purcell’s life and work, including writings of contemporaries and posthumous writings, financial accounts, lists of musicians, and similar materials mentioning the composer. In addition, there are transcriptions of prefaces and dedications taken from contemporary publications of his music.

  • Herissone, Rebecca, ed. The Ashgate Research Companion to Henry Purcell. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

    A collection of essays devoted to seven key topics in Purcell research. Not only covering a lot of ground—the volume serves to provide valuable introductions to the subfields it surveys—the authors present a critical assessment of the state of the field and its potential future directions. The emphasis is on understanding Purcell and his music in a wider cultural and historical context than hitherto.

  • Holman, Peter, and Robert Thompson. “Purcell, Henry.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane L. Root. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Provides an updating of the works list in Zimmerman 1963. The life and works account it includes draws from, or is slightly updated by, literature listed under Life and Works. Available by subscription only.

  • Shay, Robert, and Robert Thompson. Purcell Manuscripts: The Principal Musical Sources. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    An essential and unrivaled guide to the sources of Purcell’s music providing details of their contents and bibliographical makeup, often in tabular format, with commentaries concerned primarily with provenance and dating. Elucidates the important role of copyists alongside detailed descriptions of autographs.

  • Zimmerman, Franklin B. Henry Purcell 1659–1695: An Analytical Catalogue of his Music. London: Macmillan, 1963.

    This is the only thematic catalogue of Purcell’s works; its “Z” numbers remain in general use. It is organized by genre: sacred music is followed by other vocal music, dramatic music, instrumental music, and didactic materials. Within each genre category there are further subdivisions organized alphabetically.

  • Zimmerman, Franklin B. Henry Purcell, 1659–1695: Melodic and Intervallic Indexes to His Complete Works. Philadelphia: Smith-Edwards-Dunlap, 1975.

    A list of coded incipits for Purcell’s works as catalogued in Zimmerman 1963. It provides two indexes: a “melodic” one giving the first ten notes of each theme, in addition to some countersubjects and ostinato melodies (all transposed to C), and an “intervallic” one in which each interval type Purcell uses in a particular theme is given a number. Further information is supplied with each incipit, such as its meter, beginning pitch (when not transposed), and the key.

  • Zimmerman, Franklin B. Henry Purcell: A Guide to Research. New York: Garland, 1989.

    A distillation of findings in Zimmerman 1963 with annotated bibliographies of contemporary publications containing Purcell’s music and of modern literature and further lists (e.g., of modern editions).

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