Listening to Britten – Cradle song (Sleep, my darling, sleep)

(c) Ben Hogwood

Cradle song (Sleep, my darling, sleep), also known as Cradle Song for Eleanor – song for high voice and piano (ca September 1942, Britten aged 28)

Dedication not known
Text Louis MacNeice
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio, with thanks to Hyperion

Cradle song (Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Britten and the Irish poet Louis MacNeice enjoyed a relatively close friendship in the 1940s, for MacNeice had married the soprano Hedli Anderson – for whom Britten and Auden wrote their Cabaret Songs. They had collaborated previously, too, with Britten writing music for the play Out of the picture in 1937.

The setting of Cradle song for Eleanor, as it is also known, was begun in America but not finished – however on Britten’s return it was completed relatively quickly. The Eleanor of the title is the name of the woman MacNeice left behind to return to England and the war.


All of a sudden it seems Britten hasn’t left America entirely behind, for the Cradle Song begins with a brief vocal recitative that bears a strong resemblance to the opening of Gershwin’s Summertime.

The living is relatively easy here too, as a languid waltz takes hold, a kind of more reserved take on a Cabaret Song. This builds a little on the piano, but Britten holds back to give the melody plenty of expressive room.

Finally we come full circle, the tenor’s opening melody heard once again in a softer dynamic, the eyelids closing with the final piano statement.

Recordings used

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Mark Wilde (tenor), David Owen Norris (piano) (Naxos)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Bostridge is perhaps the sleepiest of these three cradle songs, but each of the tenors sing with great control in the higher range. Mark Wilde sings a semitone higher, however, bringing a little bit more tension into the music.


Despite the title, Benjamin Hulett and Malcolm Martineau can be heard on this link, part of Martineau’s second volume of Britten songs. Mark Wilde and David Owen Norris are here

Also written in 1942: Khachaturian – Gayaneh

Next up: A Ceremony of Carols, Op.28

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