Listening to Britten – Wild with passion

(c) Ben Hogwood

Wild with passion – song for high voice and piano (4 April 1942, Britten aged 28)

Dedication not known
Text Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Language English
Duration 2′

Background and Critical Reception

The Britten Thematic Catalogue entry has this song down as written in 1941, but Philip Reed’s booklet notes for the Ian Bostridge Britten album The Red Cockatoo and other Songs confirms it to have been written on the MS Axel Johnson, the Swedish freighter that brought Britten and Pears home.

The journey was a tortuous one, but it certainly brought Britten out of the compositional block he had been suffering, for he wrote this and one other song, the Hymn to St Cecilia and A Ceremony of Carols, all while the ship snaked its way up to Halifax and finally crossed the Atlantic.

Wild with passion received its first performance from Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown as part of the 1992 Aldeburgh Festival.


As its title implies, this is an intense and passionate song, and it has a tempestuous beginning that sets the tone for the next three minutes, by which time it sets the listener down in something of a heap. It does so with one of those magical Britten key changes, though, the weight shifting in the piano part from one firm tonality to another seemingly distant but inevitable one.

In the central section Britten explores more of a watery picture, ‘where the seagirls lie’, another example of his ability to paint a marine picture. By this time he had rediscovered, and was working on, the poetry of George Crabbe – Peter Grimes not far around the corner.

Recordings used

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Bostridge is the one to hear, not just for his passionate delivery but also for Graham Johnson’s impeccable managing of the final chords, pulling the key change out of the hat at the very end.


Benjamin Hulett and Malcolm Martineau can be heard here, part of Martineau’s second volume in a valuable survey of Britten songs.

Also written in 1942: Stravinsky – Four Norwegian Moods

Next up: Hymn to St Cecilia

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

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