Listening to Britten – Oliver Cromwell

A 1656 portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper. Photo from Wikipedia

Oliver Cromwell (Nursery Rhyme from Suffolk) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 1 no.7 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 11 December 1940, Britten aged 27)

Dedication Christopher Mayer (son of the medical director of the Long Island home where Britten and Pears stayed)
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 0’45”

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
Oliver Cromwell (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Even in his first set of folksong arrangements Britten covered a decent geographical area, moving from Scotland to Suffolk for the next in the volume – numbered seventh but likely to have been written fifth.

It is one of his shortest settings, the text something of a nonsense rhyme that lasts under a minute and raises a laugh or two.

Perhaps because of that it has become one of the most popular folksong settings for encore material – either in the setting for voice and piano, unison voices and piano (pre January 1959) or voice and orchestra (completed by December 1942).

The first two lines are a perfect illustration of what lies in store, especially if read at speed: ‘Oliver Cromwell lay buried and dead, they planted an apple tree over his head’.


The song is something of a tongue twister, with its nonsense rhyme – and the barest of accompaniment from Britten, picking and probing here and there in the song’s 45 seconds. You could pretty much hold your breath for the duration!

As an encore piece for voice and piano or choir it works a treat, with some touches of humour as well as showing off a singer or choir’s vocal dexterity.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Bryn Terfel (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Britten Sinfonia / Daniel Harding (EMI)

Again the Pears-Britten partnership is a must. Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are excellent; Lorna Anderson good if you prefer a soprano. The song works well for baritone, too, as Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau demonstrate. Ian Bostridge adds a great orchestral version to the end of his disc containing the Nocturne and Our Hunting Fathers.


Britten and Pears – in what appears to be a remaster of an out of copyright version – can be found here. Langridge and Johnson are here, Terfel and Martineau here, while the orchestral version with Ian Bostridge is here

Also written in 1940: Bantock – Celtic Symphony

Next up: I wonder as I wander

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