Foundations – Britten and Purcell


Purcell is regarded by many to be the composer from whom Britten took the biggest musical influence. In his output, Britten used the theme of the ‘Rondeau’ from Abdelazer as the basis for The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, realised a number of Purcell songs with alternative accompaniment, and used forms such as the chaconne (‘chacony’ in Purcell’s time), most notably in his Second String Quartet which he dedicated to the composer. These aspects in themselves reveal the high esteem in which he held Purcell’s music.

Writing for The Heritage of Music, Holst praised Purcell’s ‘gift of melody, sense of harmony, feeling for orchestral colour, humour, intensity and lyrical power’, and went on to call Dido and Aeneas ‘one of the most original expressions of genius in all opera’. Purcell’s word painting played a strong part in this judgement, and it is one of his strongest assets, together with the way in which he sets the English language. A great example of this was unexpectedly discovered in the lesser known music for The Tempest, when the First Devil sings, ‘Where does the black fiend Ambition reside’? at the start of the second act.

Holst notes that one of the problems with Purcell’s settings of the plays King Arthur and The Fairy Queen was that they were ‘too dramatic for the concert platform, too incoherent for the stage’. Yet Britten, as part of a strong desire to bring Purcell’s music to a greater audience, made performing versions of the opera Dido and Aeneas and the theatre music for The Fairy Queen. Perhaps that is why Britten’s recording of latter, made in 1970 for Decca, works so well.

It is a performance of great poise, responding to Purcell’s imagery with character. The soloists are ideally cast. Listen to See, even Night, where Norma Burrowes’ voice has a beautiful lightness, complemented by the silvery strings of the English Chamber Orchestra. The Dance for the followers of night achieves a similarly flighty atmosphere, with a ghostly harpsichord comment. Meanwhile there is a firm finality to the Act 4 Chaconne, with the following final chorus, They shall be as happy, a wonderful open air moment. Occasionally the performance can feel a little hammed up, particularly in comparison to a more ‘period’ style performance, with the ‘no no no’ in the aria Now the maids and the men are making of hay feeling especially overdone.

For his own realisations of Purcell songs, which he did to enable concert performances with Peter Pears, Britten noted that ‘it is most wonderful music, and gets extraordinary receptions everywhere’. The two composers effectively divide labours, with Purcell’s vocal and bass lines retained but the harmony completely at Britten’s disposal. What he does with it will be saved for later posts on this blog, but what is not in doubt is that his musical imagination was truly fired.

It is tempting to look for musical clues to Purcell’s influence elsewhere in Britten’s output. Are the joyous choral cries of Hail! Great Parent of us all from The Fairy Queen reflected in the War Requiem‘s ‘Hosanna’? They share the same key and mood, at least. Meanwhile the Echo in Act 2 is brilliantly done – and may have provided Britten with an idea or two on spatial awareness in his church parables and sacred music. Listening also to the Ode on St Cecilia’s Day, a work with which Britten was familiar, the duetting male voices of In vain the am’rous flute surely provide a blueprint for Britten’s own vocal and operatic style.

Having listened to these recordings a key element of Purcell’s style is clarity, a quality most definitely shared by Britten. He also writes with plenty of space for the vocal lines to work, with little instrumental accompaniment directly around them – another aspect of Britten’s style particularly when working with piano.

As we move through Britten’s output it may be instructive to return to Purcell on occasion for points of reference, especially when we look at the realisations – but the fact Britten himself continued to return to this composer as a source of inspiration, and took a good deal of his stimulation as a performer from Purcell’s work, marks him out as a key composer in his own musical grounding.

The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist. The following recordings were used as reference:

Purcell, ed Britten and Imogen Holst: The Fairy Queen – Soloists, Ambrosian Opera Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Purcell, ed Britten and Imogen Holst: Dido and Aeneas – Soloists, London Opera Chorus, Aldeburgh Festival Strings / Steuart Bedford (Decca)
Purcell: Chacony in G minor, Z730 – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Purcell: The Tempest, Z631 – Soloists, Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra / John Eliot Gardiner (Erato)
Purcell: St Cecilia’s Day Ode ‘Welcome to all the Pleasures’, Z339; Ode on St Cecilia’s Day ‘Hail, Bright Cecilia!’, Z328 – Soloists, Taverner Choir and Players / Andrew Parrott (Virgin Classics)

(NB – please be advised this is the first time I have devoted a whole week of listening to Purcell. While I hope my observations are accurate I would encourage any further thought and corrections if necessary!)

This entry was posted in Context, Foundations. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Foundations – Britten and Purcell

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Purcell: Turn then thine eyes | Good Morning Britten

  2. Faell says:

    What are the sources you have used for this blog article? The connection between Britten and Purcell is interesting and I’m going to do research on it.

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