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

Lavolta – 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 (third version), Z379c – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 21 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Colonel Henry
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original version, with Barbara Bonney (soprano) and the King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with John Mark Ainsley (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

There are three versions of one of Purcell’s most famous songs. Britten set two, so to alleviate any confusion it’s over to Robert King, writing the notes for Hyperion’s complete edition of Purcell Secular Songs.

‘Purcell’s third version of Colonel Henry Heavingham’s If music be the food of love was printed in July 1695 in the second book of Deliciae musicae, he writes. The first two settings were more strophic, but the third ‘was an ecstatic evocation of music as an indictment to love – as fine a song as had been the verses by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night which had been Heavingham’s inspiration’.

King goes on to describe the ‘increasingly florid repetitions of ‘sing-on’ and a peacock-like roulade on ‘joy’.


To be honest I struggled with this one, I think on account of the extensive melisma (notes per word) in Purcell’s writing when set this way. It is spectacular, but when placed with a relatively chaste piano part it sounds much more to me like two eras of music colliding than some of the other realizations. Britten’s pointing in the piano part is relatively subtle throughout, with just the one run in left hand octaves where the pianist is permitted to come out of his shell, and a flourish at the end to go with the singer’s long, drawn-out final note.

For sure it accentuates Purcell’s genius as a vocal writer – which is after all Britten’s intention – but having heard Barbara Bonney’s account of the song I would very much pick that over this realization.

Recordings used

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

John Mark Ainsley sings with very impressive clarity, and the vocal runs are impeccably timed and pitched, but perhaps my biggest mistake was listening to the original with a soprano just after. I found I much preferred that version!


There is a version of Britten’s realization on Spotify from the baritone Mark Stone, accompanied by Stephen Barlow, which can be heard here. Purcell’s original can be heard, sung by Emma Kirkby, here.

Also written in 1945: Richard Rodgers – The Carousel Waltz

Next up: Music for a while

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