Listening to Britten – Purcell: Evening Hymn

Now Until the Break of Day from A Midsummer Night’s Dream 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

Evening Hymn, Z193 – no.3 of the Three Divine Hymns – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 19 October 1944, Britten aged 30)

Dedication Imogen Holst
Text Bishop William Fuller
Language English
Duration 4′

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)

The original [Eamonn O’Dwyer (treble), The King’s Consort / Robert King]

The realization [Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)]

Background and Critical Reception

‘The Evening Hymn is one of Purcell’s greatest devotional songs, published in 1688 in Harmonia Sacra: over the hypnotic anchor of one of Purcell’s most serene ground basses the singer weaves a magical melody, calmly resigned not only to end the day in peace, but also ready to accept the blessings of heaven’. So writes Robert King in his booklet note for Hyperion’s release of Volume 11 of Purcell’s Complete Anthems and Services.

Clearly this appealed to Britten, too – and he dedicated this particular volume to Imogen Holst, who would become his assistant from 1952 to 1964.


This is a lovely piece of music, one of the most restful I have yet heard from the Baroque period. Although I find I prefer the song in instrumental clothing, it is worth remembering that Britten’s self-appointed task was after all to ‘spread the word’ on Purcell, and performances for voice and piano made this very much easier.

The piano holds back here, very much in the background, so that the text can be fully heard. Only in the ‘Hallelujah’ section does it come more to the fore, offering counter melodies that go with Purcell’s ground bass, before retreating once again at the end. The vocal line at this point sounds like it will go on for ever (in a good way!), meandering almost out of earshot as darkness falls.

The sensitivity of Britten’s setting makes this an intensely moving experience.

Recordings used

Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Etcetera)

Felicity Lott has a wonderful purity of tone in her account with Graham Johnson, which is completely unhurried but still poignant and moving, especially as the ‘Hallelujah’ tails away. Derek Lee Ragin and Julius Drake transpose down to E flat major (the original is in G) but Drake’s remarkable, lute-like piano part is a perfect complement to Ragin’s very fine account.


Derek Lee Ragin and Julius Drake can be heard here.

Also written in 1944: Finzi – Farewell to Arms

Next up: Sound the trumpet (from Come, ye sons of Art, away)

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