Listening to Britten – The Owl

Image (c) Graham Catley, whose rather wonderful blog Pewit can be found here

The Owl – song for voice and piano (6 May-16 June 1929, Britten aged 15)

Dedication not known
Text Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Language English
Duration 1’45”

Background and Critical Reception

‘Alone and warming his five wits, the white owl in the belfry sits’. So ends each of the two verses of Tennyson’s brief poem, set by Britten while at Gresham’s. There is evidence of Britten being ever more careful with his compositions before they see the light of day, and he obviously saw need to revise The Owl over the course of six weeks.


A simple but strangely affecting setting. The combination of treble voice and piano is still a relatively rare one, and will be an acquired taste for some, but Britten already appears to have mastered how to write for it. The pure voice could be said to represent the pure white of the owl – but there is a ghostly, threadbare quality too.

Recordings used
Andrew Swait (treble), Andrew Plant (piano) (Signum Classics)

In what appears to be the world premiere recording of this song, Swait’s tone is remarkably piercing, and brings out the haunting qualities of Tennyson’s verse.

A preview of The Owl can be found on the Signum Classics website.

Also written in 1929: Poulenc – Aubade

Next up: A Wealden Trio – Christmas Song of the Women

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

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