Listening to Britten – Hadrian’s Wall: Roman Wall Blues

Britten and Auden, an image used by NMC for their free download of Roman Wall Blues

Hadrian’s Wall – Incidental music for male voice, chorus, percussion and string quartet (12 – 16 November 1937, Britten aged 23)

Approximately fifteen numbers, of which Roman Wall Blues is the only survivor.

Text W.H. Auden
Duration 2’30” (Roman Wall Blues only)


A free download of Roman Wall Blues was made available by NMC in 2013, and can be accessed by clicking here.

Background and Critical Reception

Another example of Britten and Auden’s collaborative work, Hadrian’s Wall was completed in quick time in 1937. Unfortunately the music is lost, but the vocal line for Roman Wall Blues appeared by chance in 2013.

Colin Matthews writes, on the NMC website, “I had only given it a quick look at the time, but enough to know that it was very much in the mode of Britten’s Cabaret Songs and the Funeral Blues from The Ascent of F6, both also composed in 1937″.

Matthews suggested to the author and journalist Charlotte Higgins that he attempt to write a piano part for the song, and the finished score is printed in her book, Under Another Sky – Journeys In Roman Britten. NMC, the company of which Matthews is a founder and Executive Producer, then made the song available as a free download as part of the Britten Centenary celebrations – and as part of the PR for their new release of Britten to America, featuring the first recordings of The Ascent of F6 and An American In England.


As Matthews rightly says, Roman Wall Blues is very closely related to the Funeral Blues from The Ascent of F6, and could easily fit in the four Cabaret Songs as an encore piece, being almost their equal.

Tinged with melancholy, it is also a rather stoical piece of work, ending ‘I shall do nothing but gaze at the sky’, but is ultimately a good example of a period when Britten was perhaps at his most ‘popular’ in terms of musical style.

Recordings used

Mary Carewe (soprano), Huw Watkins (piano) (NMC)

Carewe is right inside this music, having had previous experience of Britten film and cabaret scores – and her tone is ideal for the baleful text.


Roman Wall Blues can be heard here, as part of the Britten to America album

Also written in 1937: Berio – Pastorale for piano

Next up: An American in England

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Listening to Britten – The Ascent of F6

The Ascent of F6 – first UK edition

The Ascent of F6 – Incidental music for female voice, 2 male voices, chorus, percussion, ukulele and piano duet (4 hands) (6 – 23 February 1937, Britten aged 23)

IIA Entr’acte [Mr & Mrs A]
IIB Entr’acte [Mr & Mrs A]
III Entr’acte & Gunn’s song
IV Pantomime & Mother’s song
V Chant (unaccompanied)
VIA Climbing music
VIB Climbing music
VIC Funeral march & chorus (off)
VII Gunn’s song
VIII Cabaret jazz song
IX Mother’s song & chorus

Text W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood
Duration tbc

Film and Audio clips

Not yet available, but details of the first recording of The Ascent of F6 can be found on the NMC website

Background and Critical Reception

The Ascent of F6 came at a very important and downbeat time in Britten’s life. It is described by John Bridcut as ‘a substantial score’, that Britten wrote with ‘iron self-discipline’ following the news of the tragically early death of his mother. It includes the Funeral Blues, now often performed as part of the group of cabaret songs.

In the liner notes for the first recording of The Ascent of F6, released by NMC at the end of 2013, Philip Reed details how ‘The subject of mountaineering, which Auden regarded as fraught with psychological and political implications¸ had long fascinated him…the play evokes the hero myths of Britain’s recent imperial tradition, figures such as Scott and his Antarctic expeditions, Malory and Irving’s ill-fated attempt on Everest, and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame)’.

Reed also writes on how many of the principal numbers written by Britten are for evocation of atmosphere and change of scene – but that Britten’s setting of one of Auden’s most famous poems, Stop all the clocks, was one of which the composer was ‘justly proud’. He went on to arrange it for singer and piano as one of four cabaret songs.

The NMC press release describes this music as ‘Britten with a difference’, highlighting how ‘there are blues numbers, jazz, a ‘Tibetan’ chant, a Bach chorale and even a ukulele. The Bach chorale is taken from the St Matthew Passion.


Now that The Ascent of F6 has received its first ever recording, it is possible to offer an assessment of the music within.

Considering the limited resources available to him, Britten works wonders with Auden’s text, particularly in the literally timeless setting of the Funeral Blues, beginning with the immortal text ‘Stop all the clocks’, to which you feel the music has always been heading. It becomes the inevitable highlight of the score, though Britten shows his ever-expanding repertoire with a wide variety of styles throughout. The overture has elements of blues and even boogie-woogie, and the first vocal number, with Mr and Mrs A accompanied by the ukulele, offers in its chorus ‘I’ve got a date with love!’ an early preview of some of the forms he used later in Paul Bunyan. If anything the opening conjures Gershwin’s New York, with scrunched up, added-note harmonies.

Britten sets Auden’s text with great clarity, which is an important point to make as it does contain some tricky words. The two-piano texture can be dry but is always rhythmic. The Tibetan Chant and Climbing Music are unexpectedly striking, harking back to the music for Coal Face in their use of the lower male voices. There is music of great poignancy in Mother’s Song, which must have been hard for Britten to write in the circumstances.

With the solemn Bach chorale a moving way to finish, it becomes clear how Britten is able to bring sacred music in to play – a tactic he used with ever greater certainty in The Company of Heaven and Saint Nicolas.

Recordings used

Samuel West (narrator), Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore (NMC)

The Ascent of F6 kicks off a special anniversary album released in late 2013 by NMC called Britten to America, which looks at film and documentary scores he wrote across the Atlantic in the early 1940s. This and An American in England are first recordings, teamed with On The Frontier.

Samuel West is a brilliant narrator, bringing the text to life with his charismatic reading. The performance is sharp, too, making the most of the slightly dry sounds on offer instrumentally. Jean Rigby has a beautiful timbre in the Mother’s Song, while the Ex Cathedra men plumb the depths to great effect as the ascent of the mountain begins.


The Ascent of F6 occupies the first seventeen tracks on the Britten to America album, and can be heard here

Also written in 1937: Ireland – These Things Shall Be

Next up: Roman Wall Blues

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Listening to Britten – Two pieces for violin and piano

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Two pieces for violin and piano (29-30 June 1931, Britten aged 17)

1 The Moon
2 Going down hill on a bicycle

Dedication Remo Lauricella
Duration 5′

Audio clips

Clips of the new Naxos recording from Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite can be found on Amazon

Background and Critical Reception

These two pieces for violin and piano were written for Remo Lauricella (1912-2003), a fellow student of Britten’s at the Royal College of Music. A violinist-composer, he also studied under John Ireland, and owned a famous Stradivari violin, the Vesuvio Stradivarius (ex antonio brosa) – of which more can be learned by reading this intriguing article from the Arte Liutaria website.

The pieces lay unrecorded until picked up by Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite for their Naxos disc entitled Reflections, where Britten’s available work for violin and piano and viola and piano is appraised.


The two pieces are contrasting in nature. The Moon is a dreamy piece that immediately conjures a mood of serenity, the piano surely depicting the dappled light as it spreads out over water. It is a touching and slightly impressionistic vision, laden with romance too.

On the other side of the coin, Going Down Hill on a Bicycle shows that Britten hasn’t lost his boyish side since moving to London, for this is a good-natured piece that hurtles down the slope in a brilliant episode of descriptive writing – though Britten does take time of a solemn aside in the form of a slower theme half way through.

Recordings used

Matthew Jones (violin), Annabel Thwaite (piano) (Naxos)

Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite take their time in The Moon, lazily evoking a summer night, before a capricious account of Going Down Hill on a Bicycle, where Jones is equal to the wide melodic leaps demanded by the composer.


Jones and Thwaites are not yet on Spotify but sound clips can be heard using the Amazon link above.

Also written in 1931: Berkeley – Violin Sonata no.1

Next up: The Ascent of F6

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Listening to Britten – Miniature Suite for string quartet

Britten (bottom left) and his class at Gresham’s School. Image courtesy of”

Miniature Suite for string quartet (26 January – 13 February 1929, Britten aged 15)

1 Novelette
2 Minuet
3 Romance
4 Gavotte

Dedication not known
Duration 10’30”

Background and Critical Reception

The Miniature Suite for string quartet was completed at Gresham’s in the middle of February 1929, a month that also included the Rhapsody for string quartet, the Etude for solo viola and two songs – an early indication of the mature Britten’s productivity.

The suite, in four movements, is the most substantial of these works – though I could not find any details on the work’s first performance, which must surely have been at the school.

The Emperor String Quartet restored this work’s profile with a digital recording for BIS that was issued in 2010. This was its first airing, and was subsequently picked up by Decca to form part of their Complete Works box in 2013. Reviewing this version for the Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Norris writes, ‘In the Miniature Suite, Britten’s aversion to Elgar fuels a delightful opening novelette’.


Britten’s musical language in the Miniature Suite is polite and elegant, suggesting a growing affinity with the music of Schubert and Haydn, but also an acquaintance with some of the inner workings of Dvořák. The first movement Novelette has a pleasant theme and discourse – and indeed there are faint traces of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in its poise. The Menuetto has the regal air of a hymn tune, and again the musical arguments are very courteous, the harmony consonant – with more than a passing resemblance here to Haydn’s Emperor string quartet.

The emotional heart of the suite can be found in the warm-hearted Romanza, the violins doubling up attractively, while the finale is the most confident of the four movements, its writing suggesting that a complete string orchestra would find much to enjoy here.

No big clues, then, for future stylistic developments – more a furthering of the promise shown in the early String Quartet in F major.

Recordings used

Emperor String Quartet (world premiere recording) (BIS)

For Geoffrey Norris, the Emperor String Quartet ‘approach the whole suite with affection and grace’ – which seems the best possible way to describe their performance on a very enjoyable disc that includes Britten’s String Quartet no.2, String Quartet in D major and 3 Divertimenti. Above all, it is an interpretation that brings out the work’s Schubert connections.


The Emperor String Quartet can be heard in the Miniature Suite as part of their first release on BIS here, from track 7 onwards.

Also written in 1929: Prokofiev – The Prodigal Son, Op.46

Next up: Two Pieces for violin and piano

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Listening to Britten – Etude for solo viola

Gresham’s Senior Prep (c) Evelyn Simak

Etude for solo viola (18 February 1929, Britten aged 15)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’30”

Audio and Notation

The notation for the Etude, together with a recording made by Henrietta Hill, can be found as part of the Britten Thematic Catalogue entry for the work.

Background and Critical Reception

The Etude is a recently discovered and recorded work of Britten’s that was composed at Gresham’s, just one day before the song Lilian. He arranged the piece for violin just over a month later.

Matthew Jones recorded the Etude as part of his Reflections disc for Naxos, issued in the Britten 100 year. In a review of the disc, Classics Today’s David Vernier describes the piece as ‘an ambitious work by any standard, but especially for a 15-year-old who presumably was able not only to write it but to play it’.


Britten’s first available published piece for viola is set in the key of C major, making the most of the viola’s bottom string.

It is a busy and brisk piece that chugs along with full bodied chords, a waltz that has a surprisingly catchy theme. After some tricky passagework a calmer section moves the music into G major and brighter writing, before the main thematic material comes back and we turn for home – and an emphatic, rather grand ending.

Recordings used

Matthew Jones (viola) (Naxos)

Jones negotiates the tricky passages in more than one part with relative ease, and although the recording is a little dry his is an extremely effective performance.


Not yet available.

Also written in 1930: Villa-Lobos – 12 Etudes for guitar

Next up: Miniature Suite for string quartet

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Listening to Britten – Oh Take Those Lips Away

Belle Vue Park and Yarmouth Road area, Lowestoft, 1926 – image courtesy of the Britain From Above website

Oh Take Those Lips Away – song for voice and piano (12 November 1926, Britten aged 12)

Text William Shakespeare
Language English
Duration 1′

Background and Critical Reception

Even on the verge of his teens Britten wrote best when he had a specific performer in mind. At this stage that ‘performer’ was his own mother, who Philip Reed describes as ‘never more than a good amateur musician’, but he goes on to note that ‘her constant encouragement of her youngest son brought from him a significant quantity of songs, most of which remain unpublished’.

This very early Shakespeare setting is a recent edition, and Reed’s words are from the booklet note accompanying its first recording on the second volume of a new Onyx series of the songs. The setting, from Measure for Measure, was published on 12 November 1926, just ten days before the fledgling composer’s thirteenth birthday.

It marks the first recorded encounter of Britten with Shakespeare – a series that, while not as plentiful as other textual sources, did nonetheless yield a number of short songs, music for King Arthur and the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


A brief but meaningful song that begins with trills from the piano and a stately introduction, before the tenor sings a bright line over the top.

Britten places extra emphasis on the phrase ‘songs of love’, the last word held out at a louder dynamic – and this phrase leaves the longest impression in the mind.

Recordings used

Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (world premiere recording) (Onyx)

Tritschler sings very clearly, while Martineau’s punctuation on the piano is ideally judged.


Not an easy one to find, though it is under the name of Song, here

Also written in 1926: Sæverud – Symphony in B flat minor

Next up: Etude for viola

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Listening to Britten – Valse in B major

The church of St Peter, Lowestoft, in the early 1920s. Photo used courtesy of the Suffolk Churches website

Valse in B major for violin and piano (4 October 1925, Britten aged 11)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’30”

Background and Critical Reception

The Britten Thematic catalogue lists the Valse as a violin and piano version of Untitled piece in B major, which itself appears to have been another piece labelled with the deliberately incorrect title of Walzt. The catalogue goes on to link the melody of the piece to the later Simple Symphony.

Other than that not much is known about this piece of juvenilia, completed when Britten was on the verge of turning 12. It has only recently received a first recording, from the violinist Matthew Jones, whose self-penned CD booklet does not refer to the piece explicitly.


The Valse is a graceful and slightly melancholic piece, one that suggests Britten has been listening to some Schubert but also implying a more romantic source – Kreisler, perhaps. The violin writing is rich, with many instances of multiple stopped notes, so effectively the piece is in three parts.

The lilting contours of the piece also suggest a watery theme, which for a composer not yet in his teens is already pleasingly advanced.

Recordings used

Matthew Jones (violin), Annabel Thwaite (piano) (Naxos)

In the first recording of the Valse, Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite give an eloquent and affectionate performance, tailing off rather nicely at the end.

Given the difficulty of the key of B major for string players, Jones’ tuning is extremely good.


The new recording from Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite is not available on Spotify – but further details can be found on the Naxos website.

Also written in 1926: Krenek – Johnny spielt auf

Next up: Oh Take Those Lips Away

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