Listening to Britten – Purcell: The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation

Prelude and verdict ‘Never’ – 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 Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, Z196 – Purcell realization for high voice and piano (pre 1 December 1944, Britten aged 31)

Dedication Margaret Ritchie
Text Nahum Tate
Language English
Duration 7’20”

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)

The original [Lynne Dawson (soprano), The King’s Consort / Robert King]

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

Background and Critical Reception

The website has a rather direct meaning for the word ‘expostulation’. ‘Expostulation is an expression of protest, not a rant exactly, but often lengthy’, it says.

Well Purcell’s devotional song The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation is certainly one of his more lengthy sacred works for single voice, describing the moment in the Bible where the twelve-year-old Jesus goes missing in the Temple, followed by his mother Mary’s anguished efforts to find him.

Britten dedicated this realization to Margaret Ritchie, a soprano who was to create two important operatic roles with him – Lucia in The Rape of Lucretia, and Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring.


This is exactly the sort of theme that drew Britten in where word setting was concerned, the idea of a lost child – so it is perhaps not surprising that he chose this as a prime candidate for ‘realization’. It cannot be a coincidence that it keeps the same key and mood as the recently heard The Queen’s Epicedium – and is even roughly the same length.

The tale is shot through with worry from the very first note, but when Mary is calling for the archangel Gabriel the song reaches its dramatic apex, and the piano part becomes harsh and quite reckless. It is a fraught moment that casts a shadow for the rest of the song, despite a brief dalliance in C major where Britten’s accompaniment becomes rather more carefree, with some expansively spread chords.

Mostly, though, the piano part is darkly coloured and sits in deference to the worrisome vocal.

Recordings used

Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Decca)

Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson display a keen understanding of the text in the space they give it, and Johnson keeps a calm but authoritative air to his interventions on the piano. Kiri Te Kanawa isn’t the first person you would necessarily think of singing this repertoire – and her interpretation is certainly different, with a brighter tone and very much more vibrato than Felicity Lott. It feels as though Lott is further inside the music and character, revealing much more of Mary’s desperation as a result.


Lott and Johnson are not on Spotify, but Te Kanawa and Vignoles are here. This can be compared with the original, sung by Carolyn Sampson, which is here

Also written in 1944: Shostakovich: Piano Trio no.2 in E minor Op.67

Next up: Alleluia

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