Listening to Britten – Purcell: Let the dreadful engines of eternal will

Now Until the Break of Day – A Midsummer Night’s Dream 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

Let the dreadful engines of eternal will, Z578/3 – Purcell realization for voice (baritone or tenor) and piano (March 1971, Britten aged 57)

Dedication not known
Text Thomas D’Urfey
Language English
Duration 8′

Audio clip, performed by Alan Opie (baritone) and Roger Vignoles (piano). With thanks to Hyperion

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Britten’s most substantial Purcell realizations, and one of the first not to be written exclusively for Peter Pears to perform, the composition draft bearing the inscription ‘This realization is for John S-Q (John Shirley-Quirk)’. It was the first time Britten had turned back to Purcell in eight years.

The original was written for the first part of The Comical History of Don Quixote, which was produced in London in 1694.Michael Short writes for Hyperion of how ‘D’Urfey’s rather loose adaptation of Cervantes’ original includes various absurd scenes, including an incident in the mountains of the Sierra Morena, in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come across a character called Cardenio, who seems to have been crossed in love…he sighs for his beloved Lucinda while delivering a savage diatribe against women in general’.


As Short notes, this really is a collection of different episodes. The dramatic start, with extensive melisma (notes per word) in the voice against a tumbling figuration in the right hand of the piano, captures the dark clouds and rumbling thunder.

The aria then assumes a rather lighter air when Cardenio starts to think of Lucinda’s eyes, the piano even becoming jauntier, before the mood turns once again to resentment. After the twists and turns, with the opening music appearing again, the music settles at a kind of peaceful resignation, by which time the singer’s range and control have been fully tested.

A good display piece in a recital, though rather difficult for audiences to understand I would imagine if it were to open such a concert. It is though a timely reminder that Britten still held Purcell in very high esteem, this being the 39th published realization for performance purposes.

Recordings used

Alan Opie (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Alan Opie sings with great flexibility, and has a commanding air for the opening declamation that sets the scene perfectly. Roger Vignoles is typically responsive to the sudden about turns and mood swings that Britten has to keep up with.

Similarly Simon Keenlyside is alive to the sudden changes of mood and the slightly manic air of the whole piece, with Graham Johnson following his every move.


tbc – likely to be unavailable.

Also written in 1971: Steve Reich – Drumming

Next up: Suite for solo cello no.3, Op.87

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