Listening to Britten – Purcell: O solitude

Act III, scene 3 (Trio) – 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

O solitude, Z406 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 11 March 1955, Britten aged 41)

Dedication not known
Text Katherine Philips
Language English
Duration 7′

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion
Original, with Susan Gritton (soprano) and The King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with John Mark Ainsley (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

O solitude, writes Robert King, ‘is one of Purcell’s masterpieces’. It is based on 28 repetitions of a ground bass, which will have surely appealed to Britten’s methodical mind when carrying out the realisation.

The Purcell original is thought to date from the mid-1680s, and sets a translation of Antoine Girard de Saint’s La solitude, as completed by Katherine Philips. King describes the word painting with its ‘desolately falling intervals, ‘restless’ meanders in its melisma…and ‘as only death can cure’ drops to the bottom of the voice’.


Britten seems to have picked out some of Purcell’s most profound secular music for realisation, and O solitude is one of the most intimate of utterances, the singer alone in chosen isolation.

Because of this it is surprisingly moving, and Britten’s piano part ensures the attention is placed firmly on the singer, with just the slightest elements of harmony. There is some elaboration in the right hand but it stays very much in the shadow of the vocal.

Hearing Susan Gritton in the original made me think it would be difficult for Britten to expand on such a moving setting, but he treats it with complete reverence for the vocal line – which I should have expected, of course!

Recordings used

Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Ainsley sings this beautifully, the hush towards the end matched by Johnson’s exquisite voicing. Yet I would once again point you in the direction of the original in the version by Gritton, whose voice went right through me!


Neither the original or the realisation can be found on Spotify, though the clips above give an idea of each version.

Also written in 1955: Henze – Symphony no.4

Next up: Hymn to St Peter, Op.56a

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