Listening to Britten – Purcell: Lord, what is man?

Concord (Second 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

Lord, what is man? Z192 (no.1 of the Three Divine Hymns – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 21 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication Imogen Holst
Text William Fuller
Language English
Duration 6′

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

Realization, with Felicity Lott (soprano) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Purcell’s divine hymns, setting Bishop William Fuller’s text as part of the second volume of the Harmonia Sacra, which was published in 1693. It was written contemporaneously with The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, already realized by Britten.

In her chapter on the Purcell realizations in Britten’s Unquiet Pasts, Hannah Gliebe recounts the response of the critic Dyneley Hussey to a performance of three realizations from Harmonia Sacra at the first of the two Purcell commemoration concerts in 1945. “Lord, what is man”, he said, “was the quite astonishing revelation…of Purcell’s dramatic power and range of expression.”

Britten’s objective – to make Purcell’s music more available and get it better recognition – could therefore be judged a success.


Britten’s piano part begins this hymn with a stern call to arms, bringing the listener to attention before the singer appears. From then on he keeps to the freedom of Purcell’s original, the piano providing the punctuation to what is effectively a recitative, although there are some trills in the lower end about half way through, and some florid figurations that embellish the melody up above.

The questioning nature of Fuller’s words are never forgotten, in what proves to be a powerful setting – especially as it ends in the major key.

Recordings used

Felicity Lott (soprano) and Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) and Geoffrey Parsons (piano) (BBC Legends)

Lord, what is man? is powerfully sung by Felicity Lott, and very stylishly played by Graham Johnson. However the song is perhaps even better suited to a mezzo-soprano range, as Dame Janet Baker proves in a dramatic live recording on BBC Legends.


Janet Baker and Geoffrey Parsons can be heard in Britten’s realization here, while the original can be heard in a very strong version from the countertenor Charles Daniels, accompanied by the Gabrieli Players and Paul McCreesh here.

Also written in 1945: Korngold – String Quartet no.3 in D major, Op.34

Next up: In the black dismal dungeon of despair

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