Listening to Britten – What the wild flowers tell me

(c) Ben Hogwood

What the wild flowers tell me (arrangement of second movement of Mahler’s Symphony no.3 for reduced orchestra) (September – pre 9 December 1941, Britten aged 28)

Dedication not known
Duration 10′

Background and Critical Reception

Mahler’s stock was not at all high in 1941 – but Britten had been aware of his music for at least ten years, as the Foundations series on this blog has explored. This arrangement was therefore an attempt to bring Mahler’s music across to a bigger audience.

What the wild flowers tell me is a subtitle assigned to the movement following the gargantuan half-hour march with which the symphony begins (subtitled Pan awakes, summer marches in. It was made at the suggestion of his publisher Erwin Stein, and although completed in 1941 it was not published until 1950 by Boosey & Hawkes.

The exact instrumentation appears on the Britten Thematic Catalogue entry for the arrangement.


Britten stays faithful to Mahler’s symphonic original, but as you might expect the arrangement, now on a smaller scale, acquires a greater level of intimacy and brings out its Schubertian charm.

It is easy to see why Britten enjoyed this music so much, as it has a lasting impact on much of his orchestral compositions undertaken in North America.

Recordings used

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (Virgin Classics)

Järvi’s is the only available version – and it receives a lucid and nicely pointed performance that brings out the links this symphony has with the music of Schubert.


The Paavo Järvi version can be found here, while a recording of the original, with Jonathan Nott conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, can be found here

Also written in 1941: Prokofiev – Suite from Semyon Kotko

Next up: An American Overture

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