Henry Purcell – local boy makes good

Henry Purcell sculpture by Glynn Williams 1995, Christchurch Gardens SW1In a library situated between Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, there is a fine collection of music books and printed music – the one and only Westminster Music Library.

We’ve developed a bit of a reputation for obtaining money for all manner of music related activities, sometimes from the unlikeliest of sources…

So it was that following our MOD funded Joint Force Singers choral project last June, I started thinking about what Westminster Music Library could do next for the good citizens of the Borough. Maybe it was time to start looking a little closer to home for some inspiration.

Henry Purcell - portrait by John Closterman, 1660-1711

There have been hundreds of famous people who were born in Westminster, from Queen Anne to the First Earl of Zetland, but what about those who dedicated their lives to music? Composers like Thomas Busby, brothers George and Walter McFarren, all interesting but not exactly household names. I needed a show stopper, someone who had a real connection to Westminster throughout his life. How about the chap considered to be England’s greatest composer of the Baroque era, famously dubbed the “Orpheus Britannicus” for his ability to combine powerful English counterpoint with expressive, flexible, and dramatic word settings? None other than Henry Purcell.

Born in Old Pye Street, a stone’s throw from Westminster Abbey and Westminster’s present day City Archives, Purcell’s interest in music began when he was a young child. Even the street names in his neighbourhood are enough to get the imagination running riot: Abbey Orchard Street, Devil’s Acre, Thieving Lane.

Rumour has it that he started composing at the age of 9, his earliest work being the ode for King Charles’ birthday in 1670. The young Purcell attended Westminster School, was appointed copyist at Westminster Abbey in 1676, and landed the impressive post of Organist of Westminster Abbey by the time he was 20, in 1679. As organist of Westminster Abbey, he played at William and Mary’s coronation on 11 April 1689. An impressive pedigree for a local boy, and definitely someone we should be celebrating.

Henry Purcell: Chacony (MSS British Library)

While Purcell is well worth celebrating, I needed to think about how to do it – how could this celebration help residents to connect with their community, make the most of the local opportunities and assets available to them, and encourage them to celebrate Westminster’s unique historic heritage?

With musical expertise from our long-time partners the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the knowledgeable staff at Westminster City Archives (an Aladdin’s Cave of fascinating information, maps and photographs of the area), I put together a proposal which includes a series of intergenerational workshops for local residents and school children, resource packs for both adults and children, and an exhibition focusing on the life, music, history and heritage of Henry Purcell. And the beauty of Henry Purcell as far as Westminster Music Library is concerned? We have lots of books and scores in our collection with his name on them!

So we’re good to go for February 2017, with the generous help of the Westminster Cultural Partnerships Team and Westminster City Councillors – watch this space!

[Ruth]

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One response to “Henry Purcell – local boy makes good

  1. Pingback: “A very great master of music” | Books & the City

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