Listening to Britten – Prelude on ‘They Walk Alone’

A still from the film Daughter of Darkness

Prelude on ‘They Walk Alone’ for organ (1938, Britten aged 24-25)

Dedication not known
Duration 3′

Background and Critical Reception

Very little is known or documented about Britten’s incidental music for the Max Catto play They Walk Alone. Even the comprehensive Britten Thematic Catalogue can only narrow down its composition to the year 1938 – and it would appear that the Prelude, our only recorded excerpt from the music, is a summing up of the main themes.

As for the Catto play itself, it was the basis of the 1948 film Daughter of Darkness, a synopsis for which can be found on the Britmovie website.


Britten pieces for solo organ are very rare, so this is something of a collector’s item. It is a shame he didn’t devote more time to writing for the instrument, because when used in church music or bigger choral works his use of it was generally very imaginative.

This brief piece is set in the ‘safe’ key of C major, but the melody doesn’t fully adhere to the notes of the scale, and the frequently jarring dissonances lend it an air of disquiet that runs almost the whole way through. An intriguing if rather brief snippet that ties in with the feeling of Britten’s anti-war pieces of the period.

Recordings used

Timothy Bond (organ) (Regent Records)

The only recording available is available as part of a disc of Twentieth Century Organ Music by Timothy Bond on Regent Records It is also buried in the heart of Decca’s Britten – The Complete Works. Bond’s registration choices lead to a warm and inviting sound.

No links available

Also written in 1938: Alan Bush – Piano Concerto

Next up: Johnson over Jordan

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