Listening to Britten – A Poison Tree

(c) Ben Hogwood

A Poison Tree – song for medium voice and piano (2 March 1935, Britten aged 21)

Dedication not known
Text William Blake
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clip

A Poison Tree (Gerald Finley (baritone) and Julius Drake (piano)), with thanks to Hyperion Records:

A Poison Tree – Gerald Finley & Julius Drake

Background and Critical Reception

Britten set A Poison Tree twice – this setting, at the age of 21, then a second interpretation that forms the centrepiece of the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, published 30 years later. The composer modestly cast aside the song on the day of composition, judging in his diary that ‘it’s not much good — more an exercise than anything. This occupies me all the morning — a short walk before lunch’. It is, however, his first setting of a poet whose verse he returned to on several occasions.

As Philip Reed points out in his booklet note for Ian Bostridge’s Hyperion recording of the song, Britten’s view probably explains the song’s disappearance until its first performance in 1986. It merits just one word in all of this blog’s Britten resources – ‘austere’, assigned by John Bridcut.


This presents a new side to Britten in the listening so far, with a sharp intensity to the anger expressed in the poem. The quiet moments are laced with a palpable sense of dread, especially that where the text reads ‘I watered it in fears’. The tonality feels more on a knife edge, Britten moving as the text directs just as much as using his musical instinct, while the piano part is bold, its jagged march casting an uncomfortable

Recordings used
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Bostridge and Hulett sing a tone higher than Finley, the baritone presumably accommodating his range better with a slightly lower pitch. It makes surprisingly little difference, for all three give uncompromising performances with not an ounce of padding, the pianists stabbing out the notes as if in the dark!

Benjamin Hulett and Malcolm Martineau can be heard here, as part of Onyx’s engaging second part of the complete Britten songs for voice and piano.

Also written in 1935: Walton – Symphony no.1

Next up: Two Insect Pieces

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – A Poison Tree

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74 | Good Morning Britten

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