Listening to Britten – Purcell: Turn then thine eyes

Pavane – 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

Turn then thine eyes, Z425 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 13 March 1945, Britten aged 31)

Dedication not known
Text Anon
Language English
Duration 1’30”

Audio clip with John Mark Ainsley (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano) (with thanks to Hyperion)

Background and Critical Reception

Turn then thine eyes is a duet for two high voices from Purcell’s stage work The Fairy Queen, set by Britten for just the one high or medium voice and piano.

It is the first of many Purcell realizations Britten completed in and for the year 1945, the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. Eventually Britten and Imogen Holst completed a performing version of the whole of The Fairy Queen in 1967, which they recorded for Decca. That is part of an article on this blog examining Purcell’s influence on Britten.


Turn then thine ears! The melody does just that, twisting and turning in a way that could be infuriating were it not so virtuosically writte. Purcell’s florid line gets the ideal complement in the piano, which occasionally shadows the melody in thirds, or offers a more stern, block-like accompaniment.

It is quite a breathless minute-and-a-half, with the entreaty to ‘turn thine eyes’ ringing on in the listener’s head long after the song has finished!

Recordings used

John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Exemplary control from the tenor, and a forthright support from Graham Johnson.


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 1945: Richard Strauss – Oboe Concerto

Next up: Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Op.33b

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