Listening to Britten – Purcell: Saul and the witch at Endor

Remains of the final battle by Jane Mackay, used with many thanks to the artist. Jane Mackay’s Sounding Art website can be found here

Saul and the witch at Endor, Z134 – Purcell realization for soprano, tenor, bass voices and piano (pre 21 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication Cuthbert Kelly, a singer who was in the New English Singers with Peter Pears
Text Anon
Language English
Duration 12′

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original version, In guilty night, with Susan Gritton (soprano), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Michael George (bass) and the King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

This is the most substantial of Britten’s Purcell realizations, and was performed for the first time in the first of the two Wigmore Hall concerts given to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, on 21 November 1945.

Purcell sets the Old Testament tale of King Saul of Israel, who is about to fight the Philistines but is getting desperate as his pleas to God have not been answered, and he has driven all mediums and witches from the land. In his desperation he gets his men to call on a medium from the village of Endor, asking her to raise the prophet Samuel from the dead to see what can be done. She is horrified to see her visitor is the King, but he promises not to harm her. Samuel then appears, but tells Saul he is beyond rescue and that he should prepare to die the next day. The tale ends with a sorrowful farewell, the king resigned to his fate. Although the music ends here the tale does not, with Saul and his sons perishing the next day in the Battle of Gilboa.

Purcell’s work is rare among his output, evading almost all categorisation except perhaps that of ‘dramatic scena’. Writing about the work for Hyperion, Robert King sees Purcell as encompassing elements of the devotional song, the cantata and even the oratorio. In his words, ‘The closing chorus, setting just two words, ‘Oh, Farewell’, is a magical ending to one of the most remarkable compositions of the age’.

Britten’s realization is for soprano (the witch), tenor (Saul) and bass (Samuel), with piano accompaniment – which would have been performed in the Wigmore Hall concert by Margaret Ritchie, Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan, accompanied by Britten himself.

In an extremely interesting chapter on Realizing Purcell in the book Britten’s Unquiet Pasts, published by Cambridge University Press, Heather Wiebe suggests that in Saul and the witch of Endor ‘Britten seems to have found…a site for the expression of excessive feeling, in this case shame and abandonment. She also talks of the ‘misty’ figuration of the opening, and the moment when Samuel’s ghost returns to the underworld as ‘almost disappearing off the bottom of the piano’.


On the face of it this would have been the ideal subject matter and text for Britten to set as a first Canticle – and perhaps the only reason he did not do so was because Purcell had already achieved that. Saul and the witch of Endor does nonetheless act as something of a prototype for a form he made his own.

It is an extraordinary setting. The opening notes are sparse and deeply troubled, but the moment when Samuel rises from the dead, his voice down in his boots, is truly chilling. Here the piano is also right down in the lower register, and one can sense the mists of another world that should not have been disturbed.

The tortured mental state of Saul is truly laid bare here, and Britten deliberately does not add much treble to the piano part, with much of it held well below middle ‘C’. There is brief hope in the middle section, as the witch manages to locate Samuel, but his news is bad and the final farewell harrowing in the extreme.

Purcell’s lines ensure the full dramatic potential of the story is revealed, as Saul teeters on the edge of insanity, the witch spends much of the time in fearful obedience and Samuel is vexed at his return to the world. It is a potent combination of extreme emotions, and Britten’s responsive piano part ensures that no dramatic stone is left unturned. Because of this, Saul and the witch of Endor is perhaps his boldest and most unsettling realization of Purcell to date.

Recordings used

Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone) and Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

My personal preference would be for a performance of this to have less vibrato than the three singers here use, especially having heard the very sparse and moving interpretation from Andrew Parrott. That said, this is incredibly well sung, a powerful interpretation that is also deeply troubling, especially when Samuel comes back from the dead.


Unfortunately the version above is the only version of Britten’s realization, and is not available on Spotify. However two versions of the original can be accessed. An emotionally bare account from the Taverner Consort and Players under Andrew Taverner can be accessed here, while Alfred Deller – one of Purcell’s chief exponents in the 1940s and 1950s, takes the role of Saul here, accompanied by the Deller Consort.

Also written in 1945: Schoenberg – Prelude to Genesis Suite for Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 44

Next up: Lord, what is man?

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