Saturday 21 November 2020

Jan Morris, Henry Purcell

 Today brings sad news of the death of Jan (formerly James) Morris, at the ripe old age of 94, having lived more lives than most of us can dream of – as man and woman, as soldier and journalist, historian and travel writer (or rather 'writer who travels'), husband, father and, latterly, civil partner of his former wife. Of his writings, his classic book on Venice will surely survive, along with his much later book on Trieste, and probably his great historical trilogy Pax Britannica, though it takes an unfashionably positive line on the British Empire. Morris was writing to the end, publishing a final volume of musings, Thinking Again, only this year. The world is a poorer place without her distinctive voice.

It was also on this day that England lost one of its greatest composers. Henry Purcell died on this date in 1695, at the age of just 36. The glorious music he had composed for the funeral of Queen Mary the previous years was performed at his funeral too, and he was buried in the North aisle of 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.' 
It's tempting at this point to reach for the Queen Mary funeral music, or Dido's Lament ('When I am laid in earth'), but I'm going for this beautiful, impassioned piece for countertenor voice, which he wrote in the year before his death –

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