Listening to Britten – I Saw Three Ships (The Sycamore Tree)

Wimborne Minster window detail (c) Ben Hogwood

I Shaw Three Ships (The Sycamore Tree) – for unaccompanied choir (12-13 September 1930, Britten aged 16)

Dedication ‘Imo’ (Imogen Holst) (1967 revision)
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2’30”

Background and Critical Reception

Written in the space of two days, I Saw Three Ships – also known as The Sycamore Tree – was given its premiere at the same concert as the Hymn To The Virgin. Britten gave the alternative title as its main name when he revisited the carol in 1967, dedicating it to Imogen Holst in the process. It is one of his more commonly performed works for unaccompanied choir.


Britten’s penchant for a striking ending to a piece of music is starting to bring each of his pieces to a convincing close, even when they are little more than a minute and a half as this one is. Christopher Monk identified it as a trait for each of the Two Portraits, and now Britten brings a sharp dissonance in to play at the end of this brief carol, teasing the resolution out so far that it almost doesn’t happen.

There is a sense of freedom to the verse settings here, the festivities of Christmas arriving naturally rather than being forced, and more than a hint of Britten’s awareness of traditional English folk tunes – although he was yet to embark on his folk song arrangements.

Recordings used
The Wilbye Consort / Sir Peter Pears (Eloquence)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)

The Wilbye Consort are bright and ever so slightly abrasive in their performance, particularly the final dissonance which has a nice frisson to it, while The Sixteen under Harry Christophers convey more realistically the sense of purity and joy that comes with Christmas morning. Theirs is a more chaste version, whereas Pears seems to be looking more at the folk songs in his interpretation.

The Sixteen and Harry Christophers can be heard here

Also written in 1930: Bax – Winter Legends

Next up: Rondo concertante for piano and strings

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

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