Funeral Music: Henry Purcell and the Death of Queen Mary II

A funeral and the attached loss of life to death often is characterized through music. Although many people today do not have music composed specifically for a death, this effort was not uncommon a few centuries ago, especially when music was called for during the death of a Queen who was beloved by her subjects. Hence, the “funeral Music for Queen Mary,” written by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), music that remains popular even today.

Queen Mary II, wife of William III (also known as William of Orange), died from smallpox on 28 December 1694. Her body lay in state for public observation until her burial at Westminter Abbey on 5 March 1695. This long wake period provided plenty of time for Purcell to create the music for that somber occasion. In fact, some of that music was performed for Purcell himself later that year when he died in November.

Although Purcell’s music was decidedly Baroque, he wrote a few anthems during his lengthy musical career. Most notable of these anthems is “They that go down to the sea in ships,” which provided a range of two octaves written specifically for the voice of the noted singer, Rev. John Gostling. He also composed operas and semi-operas, and the entire range of his life’s work went into composing the music for the anthem (“Thou know’st, Lord”), march and two elegies included in Queen Mary II’s funeral music arrangements.

Although you can purchase a CD with what seems to be an entire range of the music included in Queen Mary II’s funeral arrangements, it remains a point of argument that no one can be sure what was included in the original arrangements. No autograph scores exist, and Purcell did not leave an account of the ceremony. However, it is known that drums and trumpets participated in the event and that no tympani were used for the brass movements – although many modern arrangements include tympani (kettle drums).

However, a selection of CD music or downloads can reveal the bent behind the composer, who used his vast experience at a fairly young age (he was born in 1659 and died in his mid-thirties) to accomplish a wide selection of chorals and music that not only pleased the mourning public at the time, but that continues to hold fascination to listeners today. Purcell’s arrangements are very formal, somber, melancholy and expressive, as noted in the video above.

Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ he was fond of playing in Westminster Abbey. His epitaph reads, “Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.”

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