Listening to Britten – Purcell: There’s not a swain of the plain

Final March (Act I, Scene 1) – 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

There’s not a swain of the plain (from Rule a Wife and Have a Wife), Z587 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 20 July 1943, Britten aged 29)

Dedication not known
Text Anthony Henley
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)

The realization [Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)]

Background and Critical Reception

Very little is documented about this very short song, which comes from incidental music Purcell wrote for the John Fletcher play Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. The words, however, are by Anthony Henley, and were set by Purcell in 1693.


Blink and you miss this one! Again this is a setting best heard with Pears and Britten, who perform with plenty of spirit – but to me it feels very much of its time, both in the sung language and the musical.

It is more of a piece that I would want to experience as an encore in a recital than at home, if only to marvel at the to and fro between voice and piano. Britten’s accompanying figures are very sensitive.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (BBC Legends)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Pears and Britten are irresistible here, the ‘pitter-patter’ and ‘can you be’ of the song brilliantly rendered by the tenor, while Britten nudges at the chords just behind. It is all over in just over 40 seconds. Ian Bostridge is slower and more reserved, finding more of a contemplative mood with Graham Johnson at the end of the song.


Pears and Britten can be heard here, in an uncredited recording that appears to be the BBC version. The original, sung by Rogers Covey-Crump with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music, can be heard here. It is part of a very impressive edition of Purcell’s complete theatre music on Decca.

Also written in 1943: Walton – Violin Concerto

Next up: Rejoice in the Lamb, Op.30

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