Tag Archives: Henry Purcell

“A very great master of music”

Works by Henry Purcell at Westminster Music Library“A very great master of music”

This was the headline grabbing news in The Post Boy for 26 November 1695 on the death of composer Henry Purcell.

Recognised as one of the greatest English composers, Purcell was universally mourned.  But we wanted to celebrate his musical achievements rather than lament his death, not only as a prolific composer but also as a lifelong resident of Westminster.

So in time honoured fashion, the Westminster Music Library team – together with a little help from some excellent musicians from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a bunch of our local residents and school children, Westminster City Archives, some generous support by Westminster City Council and Westminster Cultural Partnerships Team – arranged a day of workshops with a grand finale concert for family and friends. This was set to be a fun and exciting challenge for all.

But before the musicians tune up and the music gets going, who was this Purcell chap and what made him so very special?

Henry Purcell was born in Westminster in 1659 into a very musical family. His Father – Henry Senior – was a leading musician during the commonwealth and became a gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  Henry Junior attended Westminster School and was a chorister at the Chapel Royal, he wrote his first song at the age of 8 and by the time he was 20 he became organist at Westminster Abbey and continued to work there his entire life [read more].

He turned his hand to church music, instrumental music, music for the theatre, popular songs, and most notably he composed the first ever English opera, Dido and Aeneas, a story of love and destiny. And it was this very opera that we turned our attention to for our workshops. Let the show begin!

A brief summary of the plot…

Aeneas, a Trojan Prince, is shipwrecked in Carthage, where he is the guest of Dido, the Queen of Carthage. Aeneas falls in love with Dido and asks her to marry him, to which she agrees.

Meanwhile, evil witches are plotting Dido’s destruction, and devise a plan to trick Aeneas into leaving his beloved wife. The Sorceress conjures a storm to send the royal couple home from a hunting trip. On their way, an elf disguised as Mercury, the winged god, speaks to Aeneas and tells him he must leave Dido to follow his destiny and create a new Troy in Italy.

Believing it to be the will of the gods, Aeneas and his sailors prepare to leave. Dido is heartbroken at his departure, and the witches celebrate.

So boy meets girl, boy is distracted, leaves girl, girl dies of a broken heart. There’s a good deal of action involving storms, sailors, witches and hunting, and a whole Kleenex box worth of blubbing at the end. Lots of potential to get creative juices flowing for both musicians and participants.

From sailors’ hornpipes to cackling witches, crashing drums to eerie strings, everyone had their part to play. Our grand finale performances by both adults and children were incredibly polished considering what a short amount of time they’d all had to work on them. By the time we reached the sad finale there was hardly a dry eye in the house, lucky we’d thought to provide tea and biscuits…

Henry Purcell workshop with RPO musicians at Westminster Music Library, February 2017



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!


Music with a kiss

The term baroque is derived from the Italian barocco, meaning bizarre, though exuberant would be a much a better way to describe soprano Natalie Montakhab and Il Bacio’s recital in Westminster Music Library last Thursday evening.

Il Bacio perform at Westminster Music Library, March 2014
As a debut solo artist at the BBC Proms in 2011, the Times critic Hilary Finch noted the “wide awake, beautiful soprano voice of Natalie Montakhab”, and judging by her performance for us in the Music Library I suspect our audience would totally agree. Natalie has also sung as soloist with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Il Bacio perform at Westminster Music Library, March 2014She was accompanied by Ann Allen on baroque oboe and recorder, and Ralph Stelzenmüller on harpsichord, the latter’s extremely delicate and valuable instrument being very carefully transported up to the Music Library especially for our concert.

The recital began with a selection of songs by one of the greatest masters of English baroque music, Henry Purcell. A generation after Purcell came William Croft, who amongst his many compositions wrote suites for harpsichord, a selection of which were played brilliantly for us tonight. Croft was wonderfully innovative in his own right, and achieved the same status in English musical life as Purcell had done. He lived well into the 18th century, and developed a very different style of music which was to influence Handel after he moved to live in England.

Il Bacio perform at Westminster Music Library, March 2014And it was to Handel that Il Bacio turned for the second half of the concert, with a selection of arias from his opera Acis and Galatea. The goddess Galatea impatiently awaits the arrival of her mortal lover, Acis. He is unable to find her, but stumbles upon Damon, his shepherd friend, who tells him that the pursuit of love is fruitless, and that instead he should simply enjoy mortal pleasures. Acis ignores him, and he and Galatea are united in an atmosphere of exultant love. A perfect finale to an exclusive evening of baroque delights for a very appreciative audience:

“Absolutely fantastic. It’s great to hear baroque in such an intimate setting.”

“A very enjoyable programme, the harpsichord was exquisite”

“Excellent and very relaxed, incredible music in a lovely space.”


Late night lute plus…

An evening recital at Westminster Music Library was never going to be an ordinary affair. Over the years we’ve hosted a variety of ensembles and performers, but this was to be our first concert for the lute, but not just the lute: two sopranos and a pianist joined the musical ranks last Thursday evening.

Soprano Ai Sakabayashi and lutenist Wezi Elliott at Westminster Music Library, February 2014

Soprano Ai Sakabayashi accompanied by lutenist Wezi Elliot opened the concert with some baroque masterpieces from J.S. Bach, including three arias from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook. After studying at the Kyoto University of Arts in Japan and the Royal College of Music, Ai gave her debut recital in Japan in 2013 and has performed a wide range of repertoire from baroque to contemporary. Ai’s voice, sweetly expressive, was perfectly matched with Wezi’s delicate and thoughtful lute playing. After a cantata by Heinrich Schutz – O Jesu, nomen dulce, they finished their set with some music by Purcell – Musick for a while from the incidental music to Oedipus, and finally Purcell’s setting of Bishop William Fuller’s Evening Hymn, a contemplative meditation.

Soprano Jessie Tse and pianist Jiyeon Kim at Westminster Music Library, February 2014After a short break and a “performer” changeover, soprano Jessie Tse and pianist Jiyeon Kim took centre stage.

Jessie is a former member of the Opera Hong Kong Chorus and has performed in concerts and fully-staged operas including Manon, La Bohème, L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor and Carmen.

After opening with some more Purcell – Hark! the echoing air, from his opera The Fairy Queen,  we were transported forwards in time to the 19th century with some well known songs by Franz Schubert including Die Forelle – The trout. Not stopping there long we were off into the 20th century with a selection of beautiful songs by Francis Poulenc and Roger Quilter. Blessed with a voice of extraordinary purity, it was astonishing to hear this diminutive soprano belting out these glorious songs with such professional ease.

Four artists on their way to the top of their profession, inspiring one another in the performance of music they are all patently passionate about. Lucky for us they stopped by…..