Listening to Britten – Purcell: If music be the food of love (first version)

Signing the death warrant – 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

If music be the food of love (first version), Z379a – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 23 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Colonel Henry
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original version, with Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor) and the King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with Felicity Lott (soprano) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

The first of three Purcell versions of this famous song is the least performed – confirming Britten’s increasing tendency to seek out the little-known corners of Purcell’s vocal output to realize and bring forward.

It is hardly lacking in musical quality, though, for to quote Robert King, ‘the melody throughout is ravishing, with a wonderfully tasteful use of accented passing notes’.


This is very different from the other version of this song that Britten chose to realize. It is much less florid, with more of a stepwise movement – but in a guise for voice and piano that only seems to make it more intense, and when it is sung by a relatively bright soprano the tone is sparkling.

Britten’s piano part takes a back seat to the melody, for it carries the whole song – which, as King says, deserves to be better-known.

Recordings used

Felicity Lott (soprano) Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Lott’s bright, clear tone is ideal for this – and for a contrast it is well worth hearing Barbara Bonney sing the original on the Spotify link below.


There is no version of Britten’s realization on Spotify unfortunately, but Barbara Bonney can be heard singing the complete original song, accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music here.

Also written in 1945: Rodgers & Hammerstein – You’ll Never Walk Alone

Next up: Man is for the woman made

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