Listening to Britten – Tell me the truth about love

The soprano Hedli Anderson (photographed by William Davis) Courtesy of The Players’ Theatre Archive)

Tell me the truth about love – cabaret song for voice and piano (January 1938, Britten aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 5’30”

Background and Critical Reception

Hedli Anderson was quite a character, if this setting is anything to go by. It is the most substantial of Britten and Auden’s cabaret collaborations written for her, and it conjures immediately the image of the soprano sitting on the piano to deliver the throaty number. An excerpt from Auden’s text gives an idea of the content:

When it comes will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose,
Will it knock on my door in the morning
Or tread in the bus on my toes,
Will it come like a change in the weather,
Will its greeting be courteous or bluff,
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love

Humphrey Carpenter tells of an eventful performance of the song at a going away party for Auden and Isherwood, who were leaving for the far East. It was, apparently, the ‘piece de resistance’ of the evening, but soon after its performance there was a fight that spoiled the occasion. Signs, perhaps, for Britten to beat a retreat from that circle!


If Britten had ever been of the mind to release a pop song for the charts, Tell me the truth about love would surely have been the one to get him to the top. Its chromatic lines make it sound richly exotic, Auden’s text is wry and humourous, and the piano part uses the sort of scrunchy harmonies so beloved of Berlin at the time.

And yet there is a serious undertone that could be levelled at Britten’s life, for he was still finding himself in the wake of his awful year of 1937 – and was arguably still looking for the truth about love.

If you wanted a Britten song to spring on somebody as a surprise, to guess the composer, this would undoubtedly be the one to use – completely at odds with some critics who might label the composer as too English. It’s a riot and a triumph.

Recordings used
Della Jones (soprano), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Caryl Hughes (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Frances Bourne, Matrix Ensemble / Robert Ziegler (RCA)

Della Jones is once again larger than life in this song, revelling in its chromaticism. A pleasant surprise is in store for anybody listening to Frances Bourne, who uses an arrangement for small orchestra conducted by Robert Ziegler that works extremely well, taking the song towards the world of Kurt Weill.


Della Jones and Steuart Bedford can be heard here, part of a Naxos collection of Auden settings by both Britten and Lennox Berkeley. Frances Bourne can be heard here

Also written in 1937: Schoenberg – orchestral arrangement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor

Next up: Fish in the unruffled lakes

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – Tell me the truth about love

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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