Listening to Britten – Purcell: In the black dismal dungeon of despair

Rachmaninov Vespers No 8(a) by Jane Mackay – her visual response to the music, used with many thanks to the artist. Jane Mackay’s Sounding Art website can be found here

In the black dismal dungeon of despair, Z190 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (assumed by this blog to be November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text William Fuller
Language English
Duration 4’30”

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion
Original, with Susan Gritton and the King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Purcell’s setting of Bishop William Fuller of Lincoln’s rather bleak text was published in the first volume of Harmonia Sacra in 1688.

Robert King describes the opening as ‘desolate, the lost soul tormented in the ‘dismal dungeon of Despair’ at the bottom of the voice and accompanied by stark harmony’. However, the music rises as hope grows that the suffering Christian might be granted redemption by Jesus, the ending rather more positive as a result.

This is another Purcell realization for which I could find no exact date information, as it does not appear to be listed on the Britten Thematic Catalogue. However a couple of recordings indicate its authenticity. In his notes for Hyperion’s complete set of the realizations, David Trendell notes how ‘ the angularity of the vocal lines are echoed in the accompaniment’.


Britten’s realization has a sparse beginning, very bare piano part that gradually comes in from the cold, and has the same melodic freedom afforded to the vocal line.

At times the tonal centre is very unclear, but towards the end, as the sense of possible redemption grows, the harmonies open out into a rich E major and consolation is found.

Recordings used

Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Anthony Rolfe Johnson sings with great expression, the flatness of his voice near the beginning indicative of the desolate mood.


Britten’s realization cannot be found on Spotify, but there is a version of the original from the tenor Angus Smith, accompanied by the Gabrieli Players and Paul McCreesh here.

Also written in 1945: Honegger – Film music for Un Ami viendra ce soir

Next up: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34

This entry was posted in Listening to Britten, Purcell realizations, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Purcell: In the black dismal dungeon of despair

  1. ambala says:

    Why are Britten realizations not to be found on Spotify?

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