Listening to Britten – Three Two-Part Songs

(c) Ben Hogwood

Three Two-Part Songs for boys’ or women’s voices and piano (15 – 29 February 1932, Britten aged 18)

1 The Ride-by-nights
2 The Rainbow
3 The Ship of Rio

Dedication not known
Text Walter de la Mare
Language English
Duration 5’30”

Background and Critical Reception

‘I write two part songs, one in the morning and one in the afternoon – one tripe t’other less rotten’. Britten’s diary entry of 15 February 1932 is talking about the composition of The Ride-by-nights – the ‘less rotten’ song, the first of three settings of Walter de la Mare.

The songs play an important role in Britten’s output, marking the start of his career as a published composer with Oxford University Press. By the end of 1933 they had sold 1,000 copies in Britten and America.

They also mark the start of Britten’s scepticism towards critics – which, on the face of a review of the songs, is justifiable. The review in question, in the Musical Record, drew strong parallels with Walton’s Three Facade Songs, a long way apart stylistically. ‘I was furious and dismayed because I could see there was not a word of truth in it’, said Britten. ‘Was this the critical treatment which one was to expect all one’s life? A gloomy outlook. I decided to stop reading critics from that day onwards’.

John Bridcut is rather more kind, describing them as ‘entertaining exercises in canon, a musical form that fascinated Britten, with his mechanical mind, all his life’.


Britten’s writing for children is at once pure but also slightly chilling.

The way the second line chases the first in The Ride-by-Nights is both impressive and unsettling, the witches ‘crooked and black in the crescent’s stream’.

In The Rainbow the outlook is much more settled, with a sense of wonder at its ‘bright-ringed solitude’, the piano spinning a line outside of the soft choral writing.

Finally The Ship of Rio is a relatively jaunty, with a distinctive folk-like melody.

These short songs may appear to be trifles but they are very well written, and mark several turning points in the 18-year old boy’s career.

Recordings used
New London Children’s Choir / Ronald Corp, Alexander Wells (piano) (Naxos)
The Monnaie Children’s Choir / Denis Menier (Fuga Libera)

The New London Children’s Choir are more sympathetic in their interpretation, with a sharpness to the sound of the Monnaie, and in particular their pianist, in the first poem. Both choirs sing clearly, however.

The version by the New London Children’s Choir and Ronald Corp can be found here, track 18.

Also written in 1932: Ireland – A Downland Suite

Next up: Double Concerto for Violin and Viola

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – Three Two-Part Songs

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Tit for Tat | Good Morning Britten

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