Listening to Britten – The crocodile

American Crocodile, courtesy of Wikipedia

The crocodile – folksong for high voice and piano (pre 14 December 1941, Britten aged 28)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 5′

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)
The crocodile (Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

The crocodile is a relatively late discovery in the massive output of Britten’s folksong arrangements, and was not grouped in with any other songs by him, despite sharing close proximity with other songs in the first volume of British Isles arrangements.

The Britten Thematic Catalogue entry for the song confirms its origins, found in English county songs, collected and ed. L. Broadwood and J.A. Fuller Maitland and published in 1893.

It is recorded as being performed on 14 December 1941 at a concert that Britten and Pears gave in New York.


The crocodile is pure gold, a frankly ridiculous song – in the best possible way. It’s also a sharp prod in the ribs for anyone who thinks Britten’s music lacks any humour. It is certainly the most I’ve laughed with Britten!

In the course of five minutes and seven verses Britten takes us into a new key for each, responding to the nonsense text with some brilliant slights of hand and spiced-up harmonies in the piano part. The mock-sadness when the crocodile dies in the sixth verse is very well done, and so are the ‘wrong notes’ that are left littered all over the piano part. That we end up in the key with which we begin is no small miracle on the part of the composer.

It’s no wonder this has become an encore piece, for it has the potential to bring the house down on any song recital. It sounds absurd when you hear it, but that’s the complete point!

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)

Considering The crocodile is a sung choc (or croc!) full of character, it is a surprise not to see it recorded more often – and there only appear to be two versions currently available. One of these is tenor Philip Langridge and pianist Graham Johnson, originally released on Collins but now available on Naxos. They are beyond reproach in a fabulously entertaining performance. Gerald Finley, with his lower range, and Julius Drake are likewise, sending up the text brilliantly.


Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson, the only version available on Spotify, can be found here.

Also written in 1941: Lutosławski – Variations on a theme by Paganini

Next up: The trees they grow so high

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – The crocodile

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – the American dream | Good Morning Britten

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