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Purcell was the greatest ornament of English music in the seventeenth century, and has been a source of inspiration for British composers ever since. Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and Peter Maxwell Davies are among those who have expressed indebtedness to Purcell’s musical genius. But his personality has seemed shadowy; in Purcell’s day there were no newspapers to illuminate his career, no colour supplements to delve into his sitting room.
From the mass of assorted material that does exist, Michael Burden has assiduously and cunningly devised a portrait of the composer both in his time and since, using diaries, letters and official and published writings from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Many pieces that are known in excerpts are given here in full and placed in context, including all Purcell’s prefaces and dedications, collected together for the first time. There is a comparative chronology of the period, a time of extreme political fragility in England. The fragility of Purcell’s own life is bleakly evoked in the composer’s final will, signed on the day he died, aged 36. As the views of musicians from the three hundred years since his death show, however, the ‘English Orpheus’ remains a vital thread in his country’s musical thought.
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