Listening to Britten – Purcell: Mad Bess

Good Frances, do not weep – 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

Mad Bess, Z370 (also known as From silent shades ‘Bess of Bedlam’ – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 17 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Anon
Language English
Duration 5’30”

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original version, From silent shades ‘Bess of Bedlam’, with Susan Gritton (soprano) and the King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

One of Purcell’s ‘mad-songs’, Mad Bess was published in 1683. It is a complex piece of work, and as Robert King details in his notes for the set of complete secular songs on Hyperion, ‘in only a hundred bars of music there are twelve sections and as many changes of metre, and yet within the deliberate craziness of the song there is a striking progression to Bess’s schizophrenic twists and contradictions’.

In his notes on the realizations David Trendell highlights Britten’s word painting in the piano part as ‘my music shall be a groan’.


Britten did not like to make things easy for himself! The constant twists and turns of meter and expression would seem to make this an incredibly difficult song to realise for piano alone. For that reason it does need several listens, preferably with text, before it makes any sort of sense.

At times the piano part seems wholly independent of the singer – in that respect following the schizophrenic character of Bess – but it does mean any idea of convention should be left firmly at the door.

The trills Britten uses in response to the text, ‘His two flaming eyes, if he comes nigh you, They will scorch up your hearts’ send a chill down the spine, a reminder that in some of these realizations he was not just adding an accompaniment – he was setting the words himself, creating an artistic collaboration of 250 years in breadth.

Recordings used

Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

This must be a very difficult song to get right, for not only does it frequently change meter and mood but it often lies low in the mezzo-soprano range. Sarah Walker handles the challenges admirably, with Graham Johnson a responsive partner.


There is no instance on Spotify of the realization of Mad Bess, though a good indication can be taken from the above sound clip. A full version of the original, however, is sung by Emma Kirkby here, accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood.

Also written in 1945: Jule Styne – Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Next up: If music be the food of love, Z379a

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