Listening to Britten – Purcell: The Queen’s Epicedium

‘Happy were we!’ – 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

The Queen’s Epicedium, Z383 – Purcell realization for high voice and piano (pre 8 October 1944, Britten aged 30)

Dedication not known
Text Mr Herbert
Language Latin
Duration 8′

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)

The original [Susan Gritton (soprano), The King’s Consort / Robert King]

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

Background and Critical Reception

The Queen’s Epicedium was written on the death of Queen Mary in 1694 by a Mr Herbert, whose identity is not fully known. Herbert in fact wrote two elegies, with John Blow setting the first and Purcell the second.

Robert King, writing about Purcell’s Secular Songs for the complete set as recorded on Hyperion, talks about the outpouring of grief in the two outer sections of this substantial piece, whose middle part is given over to a ‘lilting aria’. ‘Purcell’s setting of the last phrase,’ he says, ‘is quite magical’.

Very little is documented of Britten’s response to the text.


In Pious Celinda I voiced the opinion that ‘with a number of the Purcell realizations the age of the text means they are quite difficult to understand and relate to, and that there is – to me at least – a blend of Baroque vocal poise and the modern sound of the piano that doesn’t always match up’.

Well, this is sung in Latin, but the music suddenly makes much more sense with Britten’s darkly brooding piano part. It is very much a case of ‘less is more’, for Purcell’s original melody is so searching and intense that Britten gives it all the room it needs. The piano part, down in the lower register for much of the song, points the harmony with subtle flourishes.

As a postscript I would urge you to listen to Susan Gritton’s account of the original for Hyperion. It has a quite stunning power.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (EMI)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Etcetera)

The recording of Pears and Britten, made in 1947, crackles with dramatic tension, and the anguish in the outer sections of the elegy is difficult to bear. Neither Bostridge nor Ragin should be dismissed, however, for both offer highly emotional performances themselves. Ragin sings a tone lower, which makes a dark utterance even more sombre.

What makes the biggest difference though, with the greatest respect to two of today’s finest pianists Graham Johnson and Julius Drake, is the insight and colour of Britten at the piano.


Pears and Britten can be heard here, in what appears to be a genuine bootleg given the recording’s age. Derek Lee Ragin and Julius Drake can be found here, part of a disc that includes Tit for Tat, several of the Purcell realizations and two extracts from Friday Afternoons.

Also written in 1944: Grace Williams – Sea Sketches

Next up: Evening Hymn

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