Listening to Britten – Purcell: I spy, Celia

Second Lute Song (I) – 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

I spy, Celia, Z499 – Purcell realization for high and low voices and piano (pre 21 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Anon
Language English
Duration 4′

Audio clip with thanks to Hyperion

Realization, with Ian Bostridge (tenor), Richard Jackson (baritone) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Very little information exists on the origins of this duet, billed by Britten as being for ‘high and low voices and piano’. It appears to be one of Britten’s rare finds in Purcell, for by now he was delving ever deeper into the composer’s output for songs to realize and perform.

This one was ready in time for the Wigmore Hall 250th anniversary concert, but it is not clear whether it was performed there. Given the singers included a tenor (Peter Pears), a baritone (Richard Wood) and a bass (Owen Brannigan) it is a strong possibility.


No doubt this was much better to experience in concert, but I didn’t really warm to this duet. I think the thing I wasn’t so keen on was the setting of ‘I approach her but she flies me; I pursue’ because despite its vivid word painting there are many notes per word, and it sounds to me like a laugh that is not funny!

There are however some exquisite harmonies when the two singers are a third apart, as they are towards the end. The piano part is largely supportive to the bass line, the left hand shadowing the baritone while the tenor has a bit more freedom.

Recordings used

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Richard Jackson (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

The two singers and piano are very well balanced, both in their performance and recording, and the speed of vibrato is very well matched too.


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

Also written in 1945: Stravinsky – The Firebird (revised version)

Next up: Lost is my quiet for ever

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