Listening to Britten – Fish in the unruffled lakes

Drawing of Northern Pike by Timothy Knepp, courtesy of Wikipedia

Fish in the unruffled lakes – song for high voice and piano (15 – 16 January 1938, Britten aged 24)

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

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

Background and Critical Reception

Another song with connections to On This Island, this seems to have been performed by its intended singer Sophie Wyss, but was not published until 1947. There appear to have been two versions of the song, and Peter Pears sang the second for the first time in February 1943, with Britten at the piano. The rather complicated history is simplified thanks to the entry on the Britten thematic catalogue.

John Bridcut describes it as ‘an outstanding song’, and highlights the ‘glinting, aqueous nature of the piano introduction’.


Britten’s piano part here is incredibly descriptive, its watery ripples in the right hand the perfect introduction to a song that refuses to settle, in response to the behaviour of the text.

There is very little weight in Britten’s setting, and even when the register goes lower there is still an incredibly restless feeling, as if the singer is floundering in the river at the mercy of the current.

John Bridcut is right, though – this is a remarkable song that even at just two minutes long requires several listens before its magic is fully realised.

Recordings used
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)

One of Britten’s choicest Auden settings, very well served on record! Ian Bostridge sings this beautifully, and Graham Johnson’s piano part sets the mood vividly. It would be difficult to look past them as a first choice, though the partnerships of Tritschler and Martineau, Langridge and Bedford are also extremely good. Martineau’s piano part is more distant in the Onyx recording, which heightens the sense of detachment from the land.


Langridge and Bedford are here, part of the very fine collection of Auden settings by Britten and Lennox Berkeley on Naxos. Tritschler and Martineau are here, on the second volume of Martineau’s valuable survey of Britten songs for Onyx. You can even hear Auden himself reading the poem on Spotify, by clicking here

Also written in 1937: Count Basie – One O’Clock Jump

Next up: The Red Cockatoo

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – Fish in the unruffled lakes

  1. Jonathan Ash says:

    There’s another glorious recording on Felicity Lott’s anthology of “Favourite English Songs” on Chandos CHAN 8722.

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