Purcell is too commonly written of as “the founder of the English school” of music. Now, far be it from me to depreciate the works of the composers who are supposed to form the “English school.” I would not sneer at the strains which have lulled to quiet slumbers so many generations of churchgoers. But everyone who knows and loves Purcell must enter a most emphatic protest against that great composer being held responsible, if ever so remotely, for the doings of the “English school.” Jackson (in F), Boyce and the rest owed nothing to Purcell; the credit of having founded them must go elsewhere, and may beg a long time, I am much afraid, in the land of the shades before any composer will be found willing to take it. Purcell was not the founder but the splendid close of a school, and that school one of the very greatest the world has seen. And to-day, when he is persistently libelled, not more in blame than in the praise which is given him, it seems worth while making a first faint attempt to break through the net of tradition that has been woven and is daily being woven closer around him, to see him as he stands in such small records as may be relied upon and not as we would fain have him be, to understand his relation to his predecessors and learn his position in musical history, to hear his music without prejudice and distinguish its individual qualities. This is a hard task, and one which I can only seek to achieve here in the roughest and barest manner; yet any manner at all is surely much better than letting the old fictions go unreproved, while our greatest musician drifts into the twilight past, misunderstood, unloved, unremembered, save when an Abbey wants a new case for its organ, an organ on which Purcell never played, or a self-styled Purcell authority wishes to set up a sort of claim of part or whole proprietorship in him.
Hardly more is known of Purcell than of Shakespeare. There is no adequate biography. Hawkins and Burney (who is oftenest Hawkins at second-hand) are alike rash, random, and untrustworthy, depending much upon the anecdotage of old men, who were no more to be believed than the ancient bandsmen of the present day who tell you how Mendelssohn or Wagner flattered them or accepted hints from them. Cummings’ life is scarcely even a sketch; at most it is a thumbnail sketch. Only ninety-five pages deal with Purcell, and of these at least ninety-four are defaced by maudlin sentimentality, or unhappy attempts at criticism (see the remarks on the Cecilia Ode) or laughable sequences of disconnected incongruities—as, for instance, when Mr. Cummings remarks that “Queen Mary died of small-pox, and the memory of her goodness was felt so universally,” etc. Born in 1658, Purcell lived in Pepys’ London, and died in 1095, having written complimentary odes to three kings—Charles the Second, James the Second, and William the Third. Besides