Listening to Britten – Little Sir William

Breydon Water, Norfolk by Frederick Sandys. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

Little Sir William (Somerset Folksong) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 1 no.2 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 11 December 1940, Britten aged 27)

Dedication William Mayer (the medical director of the Long Island home where Britten and Pears stayed)
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)

Little Sir William (Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Little Sir William, the second of Britten’s first set of folksong arrangements, is a setting of a popular tune from Somerset.

Each of the songs in the first volume of Britten’s arrangements bears a different dedication to a person he and Pears met in the US, and this one is to William Mayer, medical director of the home where they stayed in Long Island.

Like The Salley Gardens this has also been arranged for voice and orchestra.


The tune of Little Sir William itself sounds rather like An English Country Garden, though once again the little touches applied by the Britten compositional brush to the accompaniment take the song to another world between verses.

Initially things are quite lighthearted, the verses tripping along, but then the song takes a turn for the worse towards the end, with the little boy passing away and leaving instructions for his funeral. Britten captures this to a tee in the plaintive accompaniment, but a potentially attractive song ends by leaving a sinister taste in the mouth.

The orchestral arrangement feels too dense and grand.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Andrew Swait (treble), Andrew Plant (piano)
Elisabeth Söderström, Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Richard Armstrong (EMI)

Again the Pears-Britten partnership is timeless, though my own preference for this folksong falls to Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson, for a beautifully rendered account. Philip Langridge and Johnson are also good; MacDougall and Martineau too, while Andrew Swait gets closer to home as the young boy, lending a haunting quality to the words particularly at the end, not sung too sentimentally. sings this beautifully, with a floating tenor line that gets the ultimate complement from Graham Johnson’s piano. Söderström sings well too, but it all feels a bit glamorous for the subject matter to me!


Langridge and Johnson are here

Also written in 1940: Hindemith – Cello Concerto

Next up: The bonny Earl O’Moray

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – Little Sir William

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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