One of England’s greatest composers, Britten was also admired as a performer, not only of his own compositions, but of others such as Mozart, Schubert and Mahler. However, it was in the music of Purcell that the synthesis of Britten the composer and Britten the performer was at its most inspired. Britten’s many realisations of works by Purcell provided him with a stimulating creative challenge resulting in a highly personal, yet wholly apt, interpretation of the quintessential Purcell. This special creative affinity with Purcell also had a significant influence on Britten’s own vocal and dramatic style.
During the 1940s, 50s and 60s in particular, Britten made many performing editions of Purcell’s music in which he was able to deploy both his inspiration and creativity and his technical craftsmanship in his approach to the realisation of the music. Purcell’s intentions are never ignored, the harmonic vocabulary he uses is always within its historical context and the music always treated with respect. Performing editions for the English Opera Group of Dido and Aeneas [M319.d.2.224] and The Fairy Queen [M260.b.200.76] were created in 1950/51 and 1967 as well as of selections from music publisher Henry Playford’s collections of Purcell’s music published as Harmonia Sacra (1688 and 1693) and the posthumously-published collections of solo songs Orpheus Britannicus (1698 and 1702).
As part of their many recitals together, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten would regularly include Britten’s realisations of songs from Orpheus Britannicus such as the delicious Sweeter than roses, the delightful Man is for the woman made, and the extraordinary Mad Bess. Britten’s recording of Dido and Aeneas for the BBC – using the performing edition he made with Imogen Holst in 1950 (although not finally published until 1960) – was broadcast as part of the 1959 tercentenary Purcell celebrations.
One of Britten’s best known works, the Young person’s guide to the orchestra, Op. 34, demonstrates a deeper link with Purcell in that it is a set of variations and a fugue on a dance tune taken from the incidental music which Purcell composed for a 1695 revival of Aphra Behn’s Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge. Written originally for the film Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), directed by Muir Matheson and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, the work opens with Purcell’s theme in the whole orchestra, then each section and is followed by variations introducing each individual instrument before the whole ensemble comes together in an energising and brilliant final fugue over which can be heard Purcell’s theme majestically stated by the brass.
Finally, the two composers both celebrated St. Cecilia‘s day in their own inimitable styles. Purcell’s famous 1692 Ode “Hail! Bright Cecilia” Z.328 (one of several he wrote for the patron saint of musicians’ name day) is an extravagant, exuberant setting of a text by Nicholas Brady (1659 – 1726). Whereas, in complete contrast, Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia. Op. 27, (1942) [M270.b.90.25] is an unaccompanied work for five-part small chorus. A restrained yet radiant setting of a poem he commissioned from W. H. Auden (and the last work on which they collaborated) which repeats the refrain “Blessed Cecilia; appear in visions/To all musicians, appear and inspire” between each section of the work.
It is fascinating to explore the inner harmony between two men across the three hundred years separating their lives and who each in their own way, embodied the spirit of English music.