Listening to Britten – The sun shines down

(c) Ben Hogwood

The sun shines down – song for high voice and piano (October 1937, Britten aged 23)

Dedication not known
Text W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 2′

Background and Critical Reception

This short but profound Auden setting appears to have been intended for a companion volume to the song cycle On This Island – which appears very shortly in the Britten listening.

On reading Humphrey Carpenter’s detailed and fascinating analysis of this period in Britten and Auden’s friendship, the temptation is to read as much as possible into the text to see how much Auden gives away about his feelings for the composer. This passage is perhaps the most poignant: ‘Tomorrow if everything goes to plan, tomorrow morning you’ll be a man:
let wishes be horses as fast as they can’.

For the few months at the end of 1937 almost every Britten setting is of Auden’s poetry, the two artists finding pure inspiration from each other’s work – but as far as can be told by Carpenter, Kildea and other Britten scholars, Auden’s feelings were ultimately not reciprocated.


Urgent and profound, this brief setting feels like it stands on a tripwire the whole way through. C major is the tonality to which Britten returns frequently, but in between there are moments of sudden piano expansion and outbursts in the tenor line. These offer evidence of Britten’s increasingly detailed response to text, with no stone unturned in his desire to paint the most vivid picture.

Among others, these include a bobbing waltz for the ‘ships at sea’, rapid piano figuration for the exclamation ‘we haven’t the time’, and an outcry at the end to sign off after singing ‘if we can’t do that, then we’re in the cart’.

A purely impatient two minutes!

Recordings used
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Langridge and Bedford are a brilliant partnership, and the nervous tension and expectation of Auden’s text is at the heart of their interpretation. Hulett and Martineau are very good too, and have a clearer recording, but are not quite as intense.


Langridge and Bedford are here, part of a Naxos collection of Auden settings by both Britten and Lennox Berkeley. Hulett and Martineau are here, part of the second volume of Martineau’s valuable survey of Britten songs for Onyx.

Also written in 1937: Rutland Boughton – Symphony No.3 in B minor

Next up: Not even summer yet

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