How do you pronounce Purcell?


Henry Purcell, who died 320 years ago today, was one of England’s greatest composers; most people agree on that fact. But how do you pronounce his name? There’s less consensus about that, and it continues to be discussed and debated more than three centuries after the master musician took his last breath. Should it sound like Persil, the detergent, or rhyme with Purell, the hand sanitizer?

According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, his last name is pronounced ˈpɜrsəl — with the stress on the first syllable, much like the washing powder. Oxford Dictionaries, in its American English definition of Henry Purcell, places the emphasis firmly on the second syllable: per-SELL; but for its British English definition, it returns the emphasis to the first syllable, PER-suhl. There doesn’t seem to be any real rhyme or reason behind the choice of emphasis: you’ll find it pronounced both ways on either side of the pond, whatever the age or generation of the speaker. (However, it still and always seems to be the case that if you visit the smallest of the three concert halls at London’s Southbank Centre, which is named after the famous composer, you’ll tell your friends to meet you at the “per-SELL” room — a pronunciation that dates back to the hall’s building and opening in the 1960s. That might be a clue in itself to a shifting trend in the name’s pronunciation over recent decades.)

There does seem to be a fairly definitive answer to this much-debated question, and we find it in a poem and its famous musical setting dating back to the composer’s own time. An Ode, on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell was written by John Dryden, a contemporary and acquaintance of Purcell’sand it includes a rhyming couplet that calls for the stress to fall on the first part of the late man’s name:

“So ceas’d the rival Crew when Purcell came,
They Sung no more, or only Sung his Fame.”

John Blow, another contemporary of the great composer (he was Purcell’s colleague and teacher for many years), set Dryden’s Ode to music, and he clearly follows the poet’s example when it comes to stressing the first syllable of Henry’s last name: listen to the excerpt below, and you can hear it clearly in the line “when Purcell came”, about 26 seconds in. It’s unlikely that a poet and a musician who both hobnobbed with Henry — and presumably had good ears of their own — would have distorted the sound of his name in their own artistic pieces. And so I think we have our answer.

I’ll let mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and conductor Nicholas McGegan have the last word on the subject. At the end of a discussion about performing Purcell a few years ago, which you can read on McGegan’s web site, they address the matter unequivocally:

McGegan: “For some reason, people often mispronounce Purcell’s name. It’s “PUR-cell.” It should rhyme with “rehEARsal”.

Graham: It’s not supposed to rhyme with “DuraCELL” or “PurELL.”

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Below are some other web sites that have explored this issue and reached their own conclusions about how Purcell should be pronounced:

DC blog: PER-sill (from 17th-century spellings, and Dryden’s Ode)

Linguism: PER-sill

The ABRSM forum: per-SELL

Wikipedia: PER-sill

Pronounce It Right: PER-sill

Forvo: PER-sill (submitted by a Brit)

Pronounce Names: per-SELL (submitted from U.S.)

Emma Saying: PER-suhl

Piano World forum: mixed

JWL blog:

“I offen notice the way older pronunciations tend to be replaced by something euphemistic or more chic, elegant, glamorous or “ornamental”. That last term came to mind because I’ve just been checking the name Purcell in the OUP’s invaluable Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges (1988; hereafter “HHS”) where it confirmed my recollection that it came from the French word for “piglet”.”

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2 thoughts on “How do you pronounce Purcell?

  1. David H.

    As yet another piece of evidence in favor of the PUR-sell pronunciation, see Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem entitled “Henry Pursell” and note the rhymes in lines 2-3 and lines 6-7:

    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.

    Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
    Or love or pity or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
    It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
    Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

    Let him Oh! with his air of angels then lift me, lay me! only I’ll
    Have an eye to the sakes of him, quaint moonmarks, to his pelted plumage under
    Wings: so some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while

    The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder,
    If a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
    Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.

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