In 1698, three years after the death of Henry Purcell, Henry Playford published the first volume of a collection entitled Orpheus Britannicus. Its contents included some of Purcell’s finest vocal music, and in one of the dedicatory poems, Purcell is described as the ‘all-pleasing British Orpheus’, on account of his unique abilities at composing for voices.
Just over a decade later, the German composer George Frideric Handel arrived in London for the first time, attracted by the city’s booming market for Italian opera — a world with which he was readily familiar, fresh from successes in Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice. However, as the fashion for Italian opera waned, the ever-versatile Handel turned his attention to setting English texts, going on to invent the English oratorio. Like Purcell, Handel also came to be frequently associated with Orpheus. In 1738, a statue of Handel was erected in London’s Vauxhall Gardens (now in the V&A Museum), clearly depicting the composer as the ancient Greek musical hero with his lyre.
While the two composers’ paths never crossed, much of Handel’s output reveals the strong influence that Purcell’s music made on his own practice, as he explored the expressive possibilities for setting the English language in his church music, odes and oratorios.
Join The English Concert for our streamed series this autumn, as we perform several first-class vocal and instrumental works by these two composers, who essentially constitute the two supporting pillars of English Baroque music.