Henry Purcell


This BBC programme about Henry Purcell is available on line for the next couple of weeks. In it Charles Hazlewood claims that we know so little about the composer that we are not even sure how to pronounce his name.

It is true that many people (including Mr Hazlewood in this film – although he is not consistent) stress the family name on the second syllable, but all the evidence points to this being wrong.

Dryden, a good friend of the composer, wrote an Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell, in which the name appears twice. On both occasions, the metre of the line demands that the name be stressed on the first syllable: “So ceas’d the rival Crew when Purcell came” and “The Gods are pleas’d alone with Purcell’s Lays”. Similarly, and two centuries later, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet to Purcell, the first quatrain of which is:

Have, fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.

Better even than these examples is the evidence of contemporary spellings of the name: John Evelyn’s Diary has the spelling ‘Pursal’ or ‘Purcel’ (30 May 1698 – different editors have the different spellings); Henry ‘Persill’ appears as a member of the cast of “The Siege of Rhodes” (1656); Henry ‘Pursall’ in the Will of John Hingston (12 December 1683). The variation in the spellings of the second syllable indicate that this cannot have been the stressed syllable.

Americans frequently stress Andrew Marvell’s name on the second syllable and (in my experience at least) always stress Lawrence and Gerald Durrell in the same way, although I have never yet heard anyone British make this mistake.

Perhaps Purcell started to be stressed on the second syllable when Unilever started to market ‘Persil’ washing powder in the UK, in 1909.

Footnote: On 25 November 2010, Steven Connor, Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck, University of London, and clearly British, consistently used the pronunciation Mar’vell in the Radio 4 programme “in Our Time”.


  1. I think that your observation concerning the product “Persil” may well lie at the root of it. For myself, I always pronounced the name of my sometime colleague Dave Waddell with final stress, not wishing to sounds as if I were saying “waddle” (with its duck connotations).

  2. Yes, the pronouncement of Purcell’s name as Persil does sound odd to our ears, especially in view of the double l. But then we call Dowland Dow-land when clearly he pronounced it Doe-land. Otherwise “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” doesn’t make sense.

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