The Tempest: Purcell and the Baroque

in Daily Programme

by Elrik Merlin on Tuesday, 12 August, 2008

This week on Radio Riel we conclude our SL Shakespeare Summer series with The Tempest, and today we feature two of Henry Purcell’s settings of Shakespeare’s plays, namely The Fairy Queen (a setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, our play for June) and The Tempest itself.

Henry Purcell (1659–1695) has been called England’s finest native composer, but despite this accolade, exactly when he composed many of his works remains somewhat of a mystery. He apparently began composing at the age of nine, but the earliest piece we can definitely label as his own composition comes from 1670: an ode for the King’s birthday. Purcell was educated at Westminster School and around 1676–80 was appointed Organist at Westminster Abbey, as auspicious an appointment as one could wish for a man in his early twenties. In 1678 he composed his first Shakespeare-inspired work, an overture and masque for a version of Timon of Athens, by Thomas Shadwell, but thereafter focused on sacred music for several years, fortunately after having composed the chamber opera Dido & Anaeas, which marks an important point in the development of British dramatic music, although it was only performed privately for several years. It is regarded as one of the first English operas, preceded only by a work by his former teacher Dr John Blow, and was written in an Italian style.

Purcell married in 1682 and was soon after appointed as organist at the Chapel Royal concurrently with his position at the Abbey. While there he composed his best-know anthems, I was glad and My heart is inditing, for the coronation of King James II in 1685.

Purcell composed hundreds of works, these being known by their “Z Numbers” after Zimmermann who catalogued them. He composed The Fairy Queen, a “semi-opera” that included both songs and spoken lines, in 1692. Indeed, during the last six years of his life, Purcell composed music for over seventy other plays, including Dioclesian, King Arthur and The Tempest.

In addition to these works by Henry Purcell today, we will hear a varied collection of works by other Baroque composers, including Bach, Handel and Thomas Arne.

SL Shakespeare Summer is a project of Radio Riel, Riel Events and the Caledon Library, and is made possible by funding from the Foundation for Rich Content. Today’s programme was produced by Elrik Merlin.

You can listen now at — the ideal URL for you to use in your home parcel media address in-world — or simply visit any Caledon Library branch in-world and press Play on your embedded music player. (If you want to listen off-world, eg in Winamp or iTunes, and the above address doesn’t work for you, click here.)


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