Exhibition launch to include famous Purcell letter

Exhibition launch to include famous Purcell letter

Friday 13th November 2015

It is believed to be the only remaining handwritten letter still in existence from one of England's greatest composers, Henry Purcell, but rather than being on the subject for which he is rightly so famous today, it is a much more commonplace demand for cash.

The famous 17th century composer Henry Purcell lived and worked in London but taught choristers sent up to him from Exeter Cathedral School.

The Cathedral was due to pay tuition fees and board for the choristers but Mr Purcell complains – very graciously - that the bill for one of them, Richard Hodge, has not been paid despite two or three previous letters requesting payment.

In this handwritten letter, dated 2 November 1686, Mr Purcell says he has been forced to appeal to the Dean of the Cathedral, the Honourable Richard Annesley, who Purcell calls Anslow.

The bill was for £27 for tuition and board of Mr Hodge, and £7 for other necessaries. Mr Purcell also tells the Dean that "compassion moves me to acquaint you of a great many debts Mr Hodge contracted whilst in London and to some who are so poor 'twere an act of Charity as well as Justice to pay 'em."

The Purcell letter is part of the Archives of Exeter Cathedral, which contains thousands of records covering all aspects of life at the cathedral – musical and otherwise – including the most complete set of medieval Fabric Accounts of any Cathedral.

Archivist Ellie Jones said the total sums were equivalent to nearly £3,000 in modern money.

She said: "In 1683 the Dean & Chapter's minute books record that Hodge was sent "to go to London to learn organ and composition from Dr [John] Blow 'or some other person of the King's Chapel'. To have £20 for teaching costs, £5 for journey and clothes and £12 salary for maintenance". He 'deserted the quire' in 1688 having more than once been admonished for such behaviour as 'going about the town in the night time with idle company with music'. His brother took his place, but sadly did not perform much better."

She added: "I've always thought rather well of Purcell because of this letter, showing he thought about debts to others too."

Happily the Dean and Chapter did pay the overdue bill in the end, she added.

The rare letter will go on display in the Cathedral on Saturday at the beginning of 'Explore Your Archives' week, a national campaign which showcases the archival collections held by organisations across the UK and Ireland, whatever their size and scale, and wherever they are. Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives has been chosen as one of four national launch sites for the campaign. During the campaign week, visitors to the Cathedral will be able to see a display on the theme of Music, Ancient and Modern drawn from the Cathedral's Library and Archive collections. On Saturday 14 November, former cathedral archivist Angela Doughty will be giving a talk on some of the fascinating documents and stories she uncovered during more than 25 years working on the archives.

The Cathedral Archives are available to everyone for research. Actor and north Devon resident John Nettles has recently used the archives in his research for a BBC programme, said: "Archives are the bedrock of historical research and more than that when they are a treasure house of information, excitement and delight when they are as good as those in Exeter. Through them we can touch our history, understand our past in detail, relive our yesterdays, to experience what it was like then and so know how we have become what we are today. We are more than lucky to have them."

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