Listening to Britten – Purcell: I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly


Morris 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

I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly, Z630/17h (from The Indian Queen – Purcell realization for high voice and piano (pre 26 April 1947, Britten aged 33)

Dedication not known
Text John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clips with thanks to Decca and Hyperion
Original, with Emma Kirkby (soprano) and the Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood

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

Background and Critical Reception

I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly is a celebrated aria from Purcell’s unfinished opera The Indian Queen, which he began in the year before his death, 1694. Despite not being completed the work received its premiere at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London the following year.

The aria is sung by Queen Zempoalla herself, and despite its bright melody and relatively light accompaniment it speaks of her despair and longing, ‘since I am myself my own fear and pain’.

Thoughts

Because this is such an airy song Britten offers very little in the way of weight to the piano part, using very little in the way of chords. Instead he opts to provide a number of counter melodies that intertwine with the vocal part, helping to catch the restless feel of John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard’s text.

It is a beautiful, open-air aria that in the right performance can really melt the heart. I definitely prefer the original harmonies, but with Britten’s aim being to get this music out to more people, the realization is a very effective economised version.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (BBC Legends) – part of a recital given at the 1959 Aldeburgh Festival
Susan Gritton (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Although Purcell wrote this aria for the Queen herself, Pears’ voice is suitable for its range. His performance with Britten is relatively relaxed in tempo, and Britten’s airy lines are dreamlike.

Susan Gritton soars above the piano, however, getting right to the heart of Purcell’s word painting. Her control is exquisite at times, especially in the slight but very profound sighs towards the end.

Spotify

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow can be heard here in Britten’s realization. The original, sung by Nancy Argenta and accompanied by harpsichordist Paul Nicholson, can be heard here.

Also written in 1947: Boulez – Second Piano Sonata

Next up: Canticle I: My beloved is mine

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