Listening to Britten – Purcell: What can we poor females do?

Country Girls (Fourth Dance) – 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

What can we poor females do? Z518 – Purcell realization for high and low voices and piano (pre 21 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Anon
Language English
Duration 1’10”

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion
Original, with Emma Kirkby (soprano), David Thomas (bass) and Anthony Rooley (lute)

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

Background and Critical Reception

I could find very little written material about this duet, which Purcell appears to have written originally for soprano and bass – but the range of the lower part moves around a lot, making it suitable for a medium voice also.

This was another realization that Britten completed in time for the Wigmore Hall celebrations of Purcell’s 250th anniversary in November 1945. It is fair to assume this appeared in the concert though I could find no confirmation. If it did, it would most likely have been sung by two of the three sopranos, who were Margaret Ritchie, Muriel Burnett and Mollie Wilkinson, with Britten himself at the piano.


A sprightly piano part underpins this brief but urgent song. The subject matter appears to be two ladies lamenting how little choice they have with their men, and this is given in a close harmony duet. All Britten really has to do (!) is supply some detached harmonic pointing on the piano.

When sung by two female singers I found this quite an attractive duet – but again the original was more of a revelation, either in the clip above or the Spotify link below.

Recordings used

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

Both singers get the pitch just right, which is particularly crucial when the harmonies move as they do from close to far apart. Johnson’s crisp accompaniment also helps.


There is no version of Britten’s realization on Spotify, but for a striking version of the original, in solo form, you can listen to the New Chamber Opera Ensemble here, part of an anthology entitled The Gresham Autograph.

Also written in 1945: Copland – Jubilee Variations

Next up: No, resistance is but vain

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