Listening to Britten – Purcell: Sound the trumpet


Second Lute Song (II) – 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

Sound the trumpet Z323/3, from Come, ye sons of Art, away – Purcell realization for high and low voices and piano (pre 1 December 1944, Britten aged 31)

Dedication not known
Text probably Nahum Tate
Language English
Duration 4′

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)

The original [Michael Chance and James Bowman (countertenors), The Choir of New College Oxford, The King’s Consort / Robert King]

The realization [Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)]

Background and Critical Reception

Rather than use trumpets for this famous duet, Purcell opted instead to use two high voices – preferably countertenors – while giving the continuo section underneath a thorough workout as well.

The duet is the third number of the Welcome Ode Come, ye sons of Art, away, completed in 1694 as an offering to Queen Mary on her birthday. It has become one of Purcell’s best-loved pieces of music.

Again very little is written about Britten’s realization, although it was likely to have been completed with tenor rather than countertenor voices in mind.

Thoughts

Purcell’s skill is remarkable in this song. The way he makes the two voices replicate trumpets they are portraying is nothing short of inspired. Normally the idea of two countertenors in duet is not one I would immediately warm to, but because the setting is so well done it is a thrill to hear. Even when done with tenor or soprano / mezzo-soprano voices, that have more vibrato than your average trumpet, the duet works really well.

The Britten realization is more matter-of-fact in the way the piano trips along, with a steady left hand staccato on each beat of the bar and quite a jaunty response in the right hand to the singer’s athletic lines. Just occasionally Britten gives the piano a sudden flourish, as if to say ‘and then…’ before the vocal lines resume.

After the colour and flamboyance of Purcell’s original, this is rather more functional – where the accompaniment is concerned, at least – though the vocal wonders still shine through.

Recordings used

Anthony Rolfe Johnson, John Mark Ainsley (tenors), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (EMI)

Two excellent accounts from singers who keep an immaculate harmony the whole way through.

Spotify

There are no versions of the realization on Spotify. However it is well worth hearing the original, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, here.

Also written in 1944: Copland – Appalachian Spring

Next up: The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation

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