Listening to Britten – Purcell: Celemene, pray tell me

Time (First 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

Celemene, pray tell me, Z584 (from Oroonoko) – Purcell realization for soprano, tenor and piano (pre 10 February 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Thomas D’Urfey
Language English
Duration 4′

Audio clips with thanks to Decca (original) and Hyperion (realization)

Original, with Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson (sopranos), Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood

Realization, with Susan Gritton (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

The full heading of this song is ‘A Dialogue Sung in Oroonoko by the Boy and Girl, set by Mr Henry Purcell’. It is said to be a good example of Purcell’s Italianate style, but appears not to be well known.

Britten’s realization of this duet was published in 1994, as part of a miscellany of songs.


This is not so much a duet as a back-and-forth, Celemene and the unnamed boy addressing each other amorously.

Britten’s piano part provides stylish and unfussy support, though now and again he cannot resist a flourish or two, nor an unusual spacing in a chord.

Recordings used

Susan Gritton (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

You could hardly wish for two better singers in duet currently than Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton, and they make a lovely sound here, with typically stylish support from Graham Johnson.


Although there is no version of Britten’s realization on Spotify, it is well worth listening to Emma Kirkby here, especially for her unusual inflections on the text ‘why I wish I was a man’.

Also written in 1946: Howells – Gloucester Service

Next up: The miller of Dee

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