Listening to Britten – Purcell: No, resistance is but vain

Prelude, Act III – 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

The Maid’s Last Prayer, or Any rather than Fail Z601 – Duet: No, resistance is but vain – Purcell realization for medium and low voices and piano (assumed by this blog to be November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Thomas Southerne
Language English
Duration 5’30”

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion
Original, with James Bowman and Michael Chance (countertenors) and The King’s Consort conducted by Robert King

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

Background and Critical Reception

There is very little known about this realization, which may well be the first work in the listening that I have been unable to locate in the Britten Thematic Catalogue. That implies the authenticity might be questionable, but the fact it appears on Hyperion’s complete set of the Realizations would suggest it is genuine.

What is known – from the Purcell perspective – is that this is a duet from The Maid’s Last Prayer, also known as Any rather than Fail, for which Purcell contributed three numbers in 1693. The duet is for two voices with accompaniment, and it seems those voices can be high or low. Robert King writes of the ‘characteristically wistful writing at the mentions of ‘sighs’ and ‘pain’.


What an exasperating listen this is! In a way it shows how effective Purcell’s writing is, because the almost constant ‘no, no, no, resistance is but vain’ becomes incredibly wearing after a while, even in the course of such a short song. So in a sense he is right – resistance is but vain.

Later on the song opens out more, and at the line ‘The soft, with tenderness decoys’ there is a rather sultry lag in tempo, headed by a very languid melodic profile created by Britten on the piano, which draws the listener in.

Recordings used

Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano), Richard Jackson (baritone) and Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

A nice blend of vocal colour from two contrasting voices.


There is no version of Britten’s realization on Spotify, but the original can be heard in full here, sung by Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson, with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music.

Also written in 1945: Roy Harris – Symphony no.5 (revised version)

Next up: Shepherd, leave decoying

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