Listening to Britten – Purcell: I’ll sail upon the dog-star

It may be when the iron is cold – Gloriana by Jane Mackay – her visual response to Britten’s music, used with many thanks to the artist. Jane Mackay’s Sounding Art website can be found here

I’ll sail upon the dog-star, Z571/6 – from A Fool’s Preferment, or The Three Dukes of Dunstable Z571 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 20 July 1943, Britten aged 29)

Dedication not known
Text Thomas D’Urfey
Language English
Duration 1’15”

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)

The realization [Richard Jackson (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)]

Background and Critical Reception

The ‘dog-star’ to which Thomas D’Urfey refers in his text is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. This brief song is an extract from the play A fool’s preferment, to which Purcell set music.

Again very little is written about Britten’s realization of this song, though in the booklet note to the BBC Legends release Roger Vignoles praises Peter Pears, and how ‘every phrase is sung on a seamless legato in which the words are lightly but clearly suspended’.


Purcell via Britten is a curiosity, for sure, but so far appears to be at its best when the composer himself is at the piano. That isn’t to cast aspersions on Graham Johnson, who does a very fine job for Hyperion’s set, but Britten is so instinctive in how he wants the piano part to go it feels like he is composing it there and then, on the spot.

Such qualities can be heard in the recording extracted from the archive in the BBC Legends series. Peter Pears, his voice so ideally suited to the contours of Purcell’s writing, makes the most of this music, especially with its increasingly outlandish lyrics, ‘I’ll tear the rainbow from the sky and tie both ends together’.

Because of the voice and piano setting – and Britten’s occasional slights of harmony – it is difficult to place historically – but is good fun to hear when performed with such sprightly energy as this.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (BBC Legends)
Neil Mackie (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (EMI)
Richard Jackson (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Once again Graham Johnson employs a different key to other versions, opting to use a lower tonal centre of G major to accommodate the baritone of Richard Jackson. Mackie and Vignoles are brighter of tone – and arguably make a much more attractive sound – in B flat major, with a sense of standing to attention.

Pears uses the same key, but radiates complete enjoyment of the music, with charm and splendour in equal measure. His version is part of a disc containing two Pears-Britten recitals, including works by Schumann, Schubert, Fauré and four Britten folksong arrangements. The disc can be seen on Amazon here.


There is a public domain version of Pears and Britten performing this song here. It has a very similar timing to the BBC version described above.

Also written in 1943: Medtner – Piano Concerto No.3 in E minor

Next up: On the brow of Richmond Hill

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