Listening to Britten – Purcell: We sing to him whose wisdom form’d the ear

‘Green Leaves are we’ – 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

We sing to him whose wisdom form’d the ear, Z199 (no.2 of Three Divine Hymns) – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 11 January 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication Imogen Holst
Text Nathaniel Ingelo
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original, with Susan Gritton (soprano), Michael George (bass) and the King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with James Bowman (countertenor) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

This is another of Purcell’s devotional songs, published in 1688 as part of the first volume of the Harmonia Sacra. Robert King describes how Purcell responds to Nathaniel Ingelo’s text, how ‘the imperative ‘hear’ leaps up an octave, the ‘spring of mirth’ curls down the scale, and ‘harmony’ is richly scored.

In Purcell’s original a bass joins the soprano towards the end of the song, though Britten’s realization allows just for the higher voice.


The spread piano chord with which this realization opens paints a grand picture, which the countertenor lives up to with his fulsome declaration, ‘let him who gave us voices hear!’

The song continues on an expansive scale, Britten adding some quite exotic right hand piano punctuation, and the transfer from minor to major key at the end is strongly affirmative.

Recordings used

James Bowman (countertenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Etcetera)

Bowman and Johnson take their time more in this song, more ‘devotional’ in their thoughts, and Bowman’s tone has a very unique ring to it. Ragin and Drake, who appear to be recorded live, push on a bit, their devotion more urgent and the piano more upfront. Both versions are valid in their treatment, however.


Derek Lee Ragin and Julius Drake’s very enjoyable disc of Britten music for countertenor and piano includes this version of We sing to him. Meanwhile the original, sung by Susan Rode Morris, can be heard here.

Also written in 1946: Roger Sessions – Symphony no.2

Next up: Come you not from Newcastle

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