Listening to Britten – When you’re feeling like expressing your affection

Actor portraying Alexander Graham Bell in an AT&T promotional film (1926)

When you’re feeling like expressing your affection – song for high voice and piano (September – November 1935, Britten aged 21)

Dedication not known
Text attrib W.H.Auden
Language English
Duration 1′


Performed by Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano), with thanks to Hyperion Records:

Background and Critical Reception

In the booklet notes for NMC’s Britten on Film, Philip Reed goes to impressive lengths to prove W.H.Auden as the most likely author for this little song, which takes longer to write about than it does to perform! Reed also writes the note for Bostridge and Johnson’s recording on Hyperion, and sees the song as something of a prototype for the four cabaret songs on which composer and poet collaborated.

The song is, quite simply, about the joys of using the telephone. It was not performed until the 1992 Aldeburgh Festival, with Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown in Blythburgh Church.


Britten’s sense of humour is now a lot more readily accessible, and songs like this bring it to the forefront. The witty text helps of course, as does a performance that can get in to the spirit of the song, but the melody and its accompaniment are instantly charming.

The cabaret element suits Britten, who spices things up with melodies that drag behind the beat a tiny bit, and added note harmonies that suggest a jazz influence is now at play.

The song works equally well for male or female voice.

Recordings used
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Mary Carewe (soprano), Malcolm Wilson (piano) (NMC)
Della Jones (soprano), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)

Bostridge and Della Jones sing in F, while Mary Carewe and Malcolm Wilson appear to be in E major. All three versions enjoy Britten’s exaggerated melodic writing, and get to the humour just below the surface.

Mary Carewe and Malcolm Wilson can be heard here, while the version by Della Jones and Steuart Bedford is here

Also written in 1935: Joe Young and Fred E. Ahlert – I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter

Next up: Night Mail

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