Listening to Britten – I wonder as I wander

Morston Church, Norfolk by John Alfred Arnesby Brown. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

I wonder as I wander – folksong arrangement for voice and piano (ca 1940-1941, Britten aged 27)

Dedication not known
Text John Jacob Niles
Language English
Duration 3’30”

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
I wonder as I wander (Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Although the tune and words to I wonder as I wander sound traditional, they are in fact the work of John Jacob Niles, who wrote the song in 1933 and published it the following year.

Certainly Britten was under the impression the song was older – but because it wasn’t, he was not allowed for the arrangement to be broadcast or recorded. This despite the fact that the song’s melody is given out unaccompanied, with a piano prelude and ‘comments’ after each verse. Britten and Pears continued to perform it in public, and since then it has become a popular encore piece for tenors and baritones.


This is the simplest of songs, and provides another illustration of how Britten could strip music back to its bare minimum without removing the essence of what he wanted to say.

Here the piano and voice operate completely independently. The familiar verse is sung unaccompanied, then the piano comments on it, with phrases akin to a bird calling out on the wing. This makes it an uncommonly moving encore piece if given to a quiet audience, as Mark Padmore has demonstrated on more than one occasion.

A song whose purity remains, even after repeated listening.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)
Andrew Swait (treble), Andrew Plant (piano) (Signum)

Not many recordings of this are available – perhaps surprisingly – but it is most certainly a case of quality rather than quantity. Padmore just about sneaks the tenor version for me, while if you prefer a baritone Gerald Finley is faultless. Andrew Swait’s treble brings the song closer to its Christmas carol origins.


Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson can be heard by clicking here, while Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles are here

Also written in 1941: Addinsell – Warsaw Concerto

Next up: What’s in your mind?

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – I wonder as I wander

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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