Listening to Britten – Purcell: Suite of Songs from Orpheus Britannicus

‘Penelope Rich’s Pleading’ – 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

Suite of Songs from Orpheus Britannicus – Purcell realizations for high voice and orchestra (October 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Various
Language English

1 Let sullen discord smile, Z 321/6 (Nahum Tate)
2 Why should men quarrel? Z 630/4D (John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard)
3 So when the glittering queen of night, Z 333/11 (Thomas D’Urfey)
4 Thou tun’st this world, Z 382/6 (Nicholas Brady)
5a ‘Tis holiday (Nahum Tate)
5b Sound fame thy brazen trumpet, Z 327/22 (Thomas Betterton and John Dryden)

Background and Critical Reception

Very little indeed is written about the Suite of Songs from Orpheus Britannicus, realized and arranged for tenor and string orchestra with flutes, oboes, bassoon and trumpet. The six-song suite has only ever been recorded once, and even then back in 1991.

Interestingly the credit for the arrangement – in the EMI booklet at least – goes to both Britten and Pears. No mention is made of the latter’s possible involvement on the Britten Thematic Catalogue entries for each of the songs, but they would surely have been made for him to sing. Perhaps inevitably the trumpet comes to the fore in the final number, giving the tenor a run for his money.

Try as I might in the Britten volumes at my disposal I could not find evidence of this suite anywhere, which is a shame, for it stands as another document to illustrate the lengths to which he was willing to go to ensure Purcell got a greater audience.


In the one performance at hand this brief Purcell cycle comes across as brightly lit, perhaps because the writing for strings is so assured and sharply focussed. Britten’s sensitive treatment of his chamber orchestra forces includes also an attractive passage for oboes in thirds at the start of Thou tun’st this world.

Yet these are very much complementary passages to the songs themselves. Let sullen discord smile is a rather solemn way to begin, though is beautifully scored for strings, and the cycle tends towards a short ‘darkness – light’ transformation, which it handsomely achieves in Sound fame thy brazen trumpet.

At the centre is its most expansive song, So when the glittering queen of night, a deftly scored number that finds poignancy in its violin writing but which never does so at the expense of the clear, ringing tenor line.

Sometimes the scoring is quite thick though, enough for any Purcell purists to perhaps turn their noses up. Yet as always with his Purcell realizations Britten is trying to bring through the vocal line at the extent of everything else, so even in a passage as richly scored as ‘Tis holiday, the thickness of the string writing is always at the mercy of the fulsome vocal.

Recordings used

Neil Mackie (tenor), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford

Mackie sings very well, with impressive flexibility in Let sullen discord smile in particular. However the recording placement is a bit odd, the tenor quite far back in what is a very reverberant mix.


Mackie’s is the only recording and is unfortunately not available on Spotify.

Also written in 1946: Walton – String Quartet in A minor

Next up: The Stream in the Valley

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