Listening to Britten – Purcell: Music for a while


Coranto – 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

Music for a while, Z583/2 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 17 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication Joan Cross, the creator of Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes
Text John Dryden
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original version, with Paul Esswood (countertenor), Johann Sonnleitner (harpsichord) and Charles Medlam (viola da gamba)

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

Background and Critical Reception

Music for a while was written for a production of Oedipus in 1692. It was written on a ground bass, but Purcell doesn’t restrict this too much in his chosen key of G minor, creating a mysterious effect.

In his booklet notes for Hyperion’s disc of Britten’s complete Purcell realizations, David Trendell notes how the composer ‘takes his cue from Purcell’s painting of the word ‘drop’ (a descending figure, each repetition separated by a quaver rest) to add to the musical simile, and in the next line the cracking of the whip is evoked by spread sforzando dissonant right-handed chords in quick succession’.

Thoughts

Britten’s voicing on the piano chords here is curious, the distance of a tenth emphasised again as at the start of the String Quartet no.2, an ever-more prominent hallmark of his style. It provides a more exotic element to what is a thoughtful realization, with added notes that probe against the home key but ultimately do not stray from it. This creates an increasingly tense atmosphere.

The central section is curious, the pulse distorted with some strange, clipped chords from the piano, before the relative comfort of the flowing music returns – but the sombre mood remains.

This is an effective realization, at once mysterious but ultimately comforting, as it restates the words ‘Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile’.

Recordings used

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

Sarah Walker is a model of restraint here, particularly in the more detached central section of the song.

Spotify

Music for a while can be heard here, sung by Pamela Bowden with Peter Gelhorn at the piano. It is part of a disc of Britten Rarities on Eloquence that includes A Charm of Lullabies, Voices for today and the Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac

Also written in 1945: Woody Herman – Laura

Next up: Mad Bess, Z370

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