Listening to Britten – What’s in your mind?

(c) Ben Hogwood

What’s in your mind? – song for high voice and piano (1941, Britten aged 27)

Dedication not known
Text W.H.Auden
Language English
Duration 2′

Background and Critical Reception

What’s in your mind was a poem written by Auden dedicated to, and explicitly about, Britten’s personality. It appears to have been borne out of a slight frustration on the poet’s part of the composer’s reticence to express fully his own feelings – in Auden’s direction, at least.

It is another of the settings that could have been earmarked for a second volume of On This Island, but in the event it appears not to have been heard or published in Britten’s lifetime.


This is a thoughtful song, the singer taking two and a half minutes out to ruminate. It is passionate, too, and because of the uncertainty of the text the harmony is restless, the melodic direction far-ranging and the emotions distracted, almost displaced.

Heard alone it is ultimately frustrating and unresolved, though that is of course proof of a successful setting on Britten’s part.

Recordings used
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Hulett feels a bit more nervy and vulnerable in his communication of Auden’s verse, while Langridge portrays more inner confidence but ultimately frustration. Both are good versions, particularly when pianism of the calibre Graham Johnson and Malcolm Martineau bring is involved.


Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford can be heard here, part of the excellent collection of Auden songs by Britten and Berkeley. Benjamin Hulett and Malcolm Martineau can be heard here, despite the work’s title.

Also written in 1941: Copland – Piano Sonata

Next up: Underneath the abject willow

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