Listening to Britten – Prithee

Pakefield Street, Lowestoft – image courtesy of the Malcolm R. White website

Prithee – song for voice and piano (1926, Britten aged 13)

Dedication not known
Text Sir John Suckling
Language English
Duration 1’50”

Background and Critical Reception

Prithee doesn’t get much press in the Britten volumes, grouped in as it is with the early songs written for communal music making in the Britten house. The newly teenage composer rewrites the last line of Suckling’s verse, replacing the line ‘The Devil take her’ with the words ‘Let who will take her’.


Perhaps the most restrained of Britten’s songs encountered so far, but that doesn’t mean it is without depth. In terms of responding to text, it could be said the piano accompaniment is ‘pale and wan’, like the first line of the poem. Britten shows early signs of his clever harmonic shifts at the end of the first verse, which modulates to G minor – but just as the ear registers the change he’s back in E flat major, the home key. Here, to me, there is more of Schumann’s influence in a setting that has poise yet fragility, reflected in the short piano postlude.

Recordings used
Andrew Tortise (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Tortise and Martineau are restrained, in the spirit of the poem, and Martineau’s piano is distant but responsive in its clear staccato, and the postlude is a beautifully rendered ‘signing-off’.



Also written in 1926: Bartók – Piano Concerto no.1

Next up: The Joy of Grief

This entry was posted in English, Listening to Britten, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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