Did you know that Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s (1659–1695) Fairy Queen is loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Today we will continue our look at musical settings of Shakespeare by learning about Purcell and his work.
Henry Purcell was born into a musical family, his father a singer at Chapel Royal. Purcell was a chorister and organist at Westminster Abbey as a result of his father’s influence. He also spent time as a court composer and as Keeper of the King’s Instruments!
Purcell’s Fairy Queen is known as semi-opera because it contains choruses, solos, and instrumental selections that alternate with a dialogue inspired by Shakespeare’s play. The dialogue was written by an anonymous adaptor who had no problem taking liberties with Shakespeare’s original text and plot line. In fact, no original line in Shakespeare’s play was kept intact for Purcell’s work. At its premiere in 1692, Fairy Queen used expensive and delightful stage props to enhance the performance. The semi-opera eventually disappeared and was not rediscovered until the 20th century. Today, it is often performed without the added spoken dialogue.
Next week, we’ll take a look at musical settings of Hamlet!