Listening to Britten – O can ye sew cushions?

Entrance to Loch Katrine, Moonlight, Highlanders Spearing Salmon by George Salmon. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

O can ye sew cushions? (Scottish Tune) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 1 no.4 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (ca December 1940, Britten aged 27)

Dedication Meg Mundy (American actress)
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
O can ye sew cushions? (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

The fourth of Britten’s first set of folksong arrangements, O can ye sew cushions? is Britten’s second setting of a Scottish tune.

It was dedicated to Meg Mundy, who the Britten Thematic Catalogue describes as an American Actress, and daughter of John and Clytie Mundy, professional cellist and singer respectively. Britten and Pears knew the family during their stay in New York. Once again the song was later arranged for high voice and orchestra, with a composition date of pre 6 November 1944.

Among other singers to have tackled this song are Sarah Brightman, who appears to have made her own arrangement. Britten’s is the only ‘classical’ example, it would seem.


This song, with its unexpectedly wide melodic leaps, gets a watery accompaniment from Britten in the verse and a strange kind of counter harmony in the chorus that throws a cloak of uncertainty over it.

It is strangely effective, even more so in the choral version, which is rather lovely.

The orchestral arrangement, while a little thicker, works well too.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Elizabethan Singers / Louis Halsey, Wilfrid Parry (piano) (Eloquence)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
Mark Wilde (tenor), David Owen Norris (piano)

Britten and Pears are graceful exponents of this song, and Felicity Lott offers an extremely pleasant line as the soprano of choice. Mark Wilde and David Owen Norris once again impress in their album of Britten’s complete Scottish settings. The choral version from the Elizabethan Singers, while a little old-fashioned, is superbly controlled.


Britten and Pears are here, while Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson are here and Mark Wilde with David Owen Norris can be heard here.

The Elizabethan Singers under Louis Halsey can be heard here, while the orchestral version has its ideal exponent in Philip Langridge and Steaurt Bedford if you click here!

Also written in 1940: Hindemith – Symphony in E flat

Next up: Oliver Cromwell

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