Listening to Britten – If thou wilt ease thine heart

(c) Ben Hogwood

If thou wilt ease thine heart – 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

This is the second setting of Beddoes composed by Britten as he and Pears traveled back from America. Philip Reed, in his booklet notes for the Ian Bostridge album The Red Cockatoo & other songs, considers that Pears may well have wanted Britten to complete a whole cycle of the poet’s works, but this and Wild with passion are the only two examples.

Reed goes on to cite an early example of Britten’s use of heterophony, best described as the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line. It is more commonly found in non-Western music, and the trail here leads to Britten’s recordings of traditional Balinese music with the ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee in 1941. These sessions will be seen to have had a greater impact later in Britten’s life.

The two Beddoes settings received their first performances from Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown in Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh, as part of the 45th Aldeburgh Festival in 1992.


Another passionate response from Britten to the poetry of Beddoes, this song is nonetheless more restrained. Its piano line is perhaps representative of the tears cried in the text, while the vocal line stays more in the mid range.

The song stays mostly in D major, a key Britten was using a lot at the time, but the harmonies are full and rich as part of the heterophony (see above!). The structure is beautifully proportioned but the music is restless still, its forward motion continuing until the piano signs off, flowing back into the calm waters of the home key.

Recordings used

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

Bostridge is totally within this music, with Johnson his ever-attentive partner, but Hulett and Martineau also do this song full justice.


Despite the title, Benjamin Hulett and Malcolm Martineau can be heard on this link, part of Martineau’s second volume in a valuable survey of Britten songs.

Also written in 1942: Khachaturian – Gayaneh

Next up: Die Forelle

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

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