Listening to Britten – Underneath the abject willow

(c) Ben Hogwood

Underneath the abject willow – song for high voice and piano (1941, Britten aged 27)

Dedication not known
Text W.H.Auden
Language English
Duration 1′

Background and Critical Reception

A second setting of Auden’s Underneath the abject willow, following on from the second of Two Ballads that Britten set in 1936. At that point he had not long been introduced – or even inducted – into Auden’s circle. Now he was approaching the text from a very different standing point, and Auden’s exhortations to him to spread his wings had run their course thanks to Peter Pears.

Originally Britten set this text for the Wyss sisters to sing – here it would almost certainly have been for Peter Pears, though was published posthumously.


Britten’s second setting of this text is relatively similar to the first, but has that bit more confidence and sense of being in control – an obvious parallel to draw with the state of the composer’s own life.

For the second verse the song transforms completely, moving from Britten’s ‘safe’ and affirmative key of C major to a more mysterious A flat, where it describes Auden’s bells that ‘toll for these unloving shadows’.

Yet before we know it, the music is back in C for the third verse, the piano signing off with a matter-of-fact swipe, as if dismissing the poet’s thoughts as no longer relevant.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford are fully in the spirit of the contrasting verses, all three brilliantly turned. Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau are slightly slower, Tritschler has a slightly fuller tone and their recording is more reverberant. Again a very fine version though.


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

Also written in 1941: Prokofiev – String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92

Next up: Greensleeves

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