Listening to Britten – The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone – first UK edition

The Sword in the Stone – Incidental music for female and male voices, chorus, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion and harp (May 1939, Britten aged 25)

1 Introduction
2 Boys’ tunes
3 Merlyn’s tune
4 Merlyn’s spell
5 Lullaby
6 Water theme
7 Jousting music
8 Jousting song
9 Bird music
10 Bird’s song I/Hymn version I
11 Bird’s song II and Version II
12 Witch tune
13 Witches song
14 Tree music
15 End Music

Text T. H. White
Duration 14′ with spoken word; 9’30” without

Audio clip

The Introduction and Boys’ Tune, using the recording made by the Nash Ensemble and Lionel Friend, with thanks to Hyperion Records:

Background and Critical Reception

This is the first music Britten wrote on arrival in North America, where he was intending to stay a couple of months. He journeyed with Peter Pears – then still a valued friend – to Quebec, where they stayed for several weeks before heading on to New York state. There they joined Auden and Isherwood, who had sailed in January.

The BBC kept track of him, however, and they requested he return to Camelot for incidental music totally different in scale to the previous King Arthur. This was a radio score once again, requested as a complement to T.H. White’s fantasy story on King Arthur’s boyhood, The Sword in the Stone.

One of the central elements to White’s plot is that Arthur’s sidekick Merlin (spelled Merlyn in the book and score) lives backwards in time, unlike anybody else, and the story looks at his schooling of the future king, not to mention a gift for turning Wart into a number of different animals.

John Bridcut reports on how he ‘dashed off 15 cues’, which have been rounded up in to a suite by Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen. A selection have been recorded by Hyperion, and in the booklet notes for this 1996 release Philip Reed details how the chosen themes pay homage to Wagner. Merlyn’s Tune pays homage to the Das Rheingold prelude, and the End music takes a part of the ‘Freedom’ motif heard in Act One of Siegfried.


The score kicks off with one of those tunes that once heard several times is never removed. It is totally in keeping with the comedic nature of White’s writing, while the unusual scoring, with piccolo prominent, feeds the fantasy element too. The Bird Music is especially heady, with the high harp and trombone glissando creating a weird sense of enchantment and weightlessness.

This is a score that vividly illustrates Britten’s talent for getting bright colours from unusual combinations of instruments, and once again he puts the percussion to good use to make his point. The music for Merlyn’s Tune brings trombone and bassoon together, down in the depths, while the fuller ensemble makes music of great tenderness in the Lullaby.

Recordings used

Terence Hanbury White, Orchestra / Walter Goehr (Eloquence)
Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion)

There is more music on the Nash Ensemble recording, which also has the benefit of Hyperion’s extremely good recording. The Nash play brilliantly, enjoying the unusual textures.

There is charm, too, at hearing White read his own text on Eloquence as part of an album called Britten Rarities, even if the music is relegated to more of a supporting role.


T.H. White can be heard reading above Britten’s score here

Also written in 1939: Bliss – Piano Concerto

Next up: Calypso

This entry was posted in Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Radio score, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – The Sword in the Stone

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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