Listening to Britten – To lie flat on the back with the knees flexed

(c) Ben Hogwood

To lie flat on the back with the knees flexed – song for high voice and piano (26 October 1937, Britten aged 23)

Dedication not known
Text W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 2’30”

Audio clip (Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano), with thanks to Hyperion

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of the short songs originally intended for a second volume of On This Island, but was published alone by Boosey & Hawkes in 1937. Its first performance was a long time coming, however, through tenor Neil Mackie and pianist John Blakely in April 1985.

The satirical text is loaded with sexual suggestion, a preoccupation of Britten’s throughout this particularly intense period of his association with Auden.


Britten’s setting evokes the heat haze of a park on a summer afternoon, with a sudden seclusion and privacy.

The singer’s line is restless, the piano insisting on bringing the tonality back to the ‘safe’ area of C major, while the tenor line continues to suggest and cajole. A peace of sorts is found, but the restless mood remains.

Recordings used
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
James Geer (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Neil Mackie (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (EMI Classics)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)

This is an increasingly popular song as part of a Britten selection in recitals. On record it has fared very well too. Bostridge and Johnson are pretty much essential listening, and their Hyperion disc The Red Cockatoo and other songs is essential for anyone interested in this period of Britten’s output. The other versions are extremely good, too – Neil Mackie, the song’s first public performer, being another sound choice, while Philip Langridge allows an evocative husk into his voice at the end.


Neither of these songs is at all easy to find on Spotify, but Langridge and Bedford are here, part of a very fine Naxos collection of Auden settings by both Britten and Lennox Berkeley. James Geer and Malcolm Martineau are here, the first track of the first volume of Martineau’s valuable survey of Britten songs for Onyx.

Also written in 1937: Duke Ellington – Caravan

Next up: Night covers up the rigid land

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

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