Listening to Britten – Two Ballads

from Wikipedia

Two Ballads for two voices and piano (9 – 18 November 1936, Britten aged 23)

1 Mother Comfort (Montagu Slater)
2 Underneath the abject willow (W.H. Auden)

Dedication Not known
Text Montagu Slater, W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 6′

Background and Critical Reception

Underneath the abject willow was dedicated to Britten by Auden, and was a poem observing, in Humphrey Carpenter’s words, Britten as an ‘individual restraining himself from full emotional commitment’. The full text of Auden’s poem can be found here.

The Britten Thematic Catalogue states that this song and Mother Comfort ‘were intended for performance by the Swiss-born sisters, Sophie and Colette Wyss’, Sophie’s being the voice Britten wrote Our Hunting Fathers for. However Colette withdrew from the first performance due to anxiety over singing an English text, with the soprano Betty Bannerman taking her place at the Wigmore Hall.


A beautifully shaped piano part brings in the first song, Mother Comfort, though this is a largely sombre, distracted affair. Its stand-out line, ‘will you be mother comfort or shall I?’, finds the vocal parts falling into a lower range, beautifully paired by the composer.

Underneath the abject willow is a more upbeat song laced with determination, perhaps a robust rebuttal of Auden’s accusations, though it too has a reflective side before ending in a fluttering of wings.

Recordings used
Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)

Beautifully sung, with Lott and Murray as one in the duet passages. Graham Johnson shapes the upward phrase of Mother Comfort beautifully.

Mother Comfort is here, while Underneath the abject willow is here. Both are part of a double disc EMI release called Sweet Power of Song.

Also written in 1936: Vaughan Williams – Donna Nobis Pacem

Next up: Love From A Stranger

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

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Two Ballads

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Underneath the abject willow | Good Morning Britten

  2. clwhitlow says:

    Any thoughts on the meaning intended behind the text of ‘Mother Comfort?’ I’m in love with the piece and singing it for a recital, but my duet partner and I had to make up our own story behind it. The text has such powerful lines but we can’t seem to string them together!

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