Henry Purcell has been one of my greatest favourites for several years, and I believe he is the greatest British composer ever. I am not alone to believe this. A couple of years ago, Classic CD had this as their cover story. View the cover here (108 Kb).
Henry Purcell was born into a family of musicians, and he has a musical upbringing as a boy chorister (as have many other British composers). It was very fortunate for young Henry that he was born at the time he was, and not earlier. Cromwell's regime ended in 1660, and it was a good thing for the musical establishment. Cornwall destroyed the musical establishment in Britain, and they had to began all over again when Charles II entered the throne. So, there were few musicians around when Purcell was born.
Purcell worked with the British Court until the 1680's, where he began composing more for the theatre (f.ex his semi operas.). Purcell made some of his greatest music for the royals. As good examples I can mention his odes, welcome songs, anthems and services. He also made instrumental music. During the 1690's Purcell wrote mostly for the theatre (f.ex. the Fairy queen, King Arthur and the Indian queen), but he did also write a beautiful and move ode on the death of Queen Mary in 1695 (and the same music were performed in his own funeral a few months later).
My favourite Purcell work is his opera "Dido & Aeneas". It lasts normally around fifty minutes. It is not complete as some of the music has been lost. We are not sure when it was completed either. Some sources suggest 1684 and others 1689. The last one is confirmed, but there are some insecurity about the first date. No complete score excist from Purcell's own time, the oldest is from around 1770.
I have attended two concerts with music by Henry Purcell. That was back in 1995. It was one recital with James Bowman and a conctertant performance of Dido & Aeneas. Both backed by Robert King and The King's Consort. See the program cover here.