Listening to Britten – Fileuse

Lake scene in France by Josephine Bowes. Used with thanks to the Bowes museum.

Fileuse (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 2 no.3 (France)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (December 1942, Britten aged 29)

Dedication Arnold and Humphrey Gyde
Text Traditional
Language French
Duration 3′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
Fileuse (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Fileuse is the third of Britten’s eight French folksong arrangements given to Sophie Wyss to perform. As with almost all the folksongs this is a unisex arrangement, however, and Peter Pears was familiar with and sang the French settings himself.

In his booklet note for Hyperion’s recording of the complete folksongs, Lewis Foreman praises how ‘again the piano parts intensify the story being told. In Fileuse the fast figuration evokes the spinning-wheel as the singer broods on her youth beyond recall’.

Fileuse was the first of five French settings that Britten orchestrated.


This is one of Britten’s ‘spinning songs’, where the piano part follows on from Schubert by describing a kind of machine in motion. This being Britten, though, there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre, and as the music trips along the harmony parts with the melody on occasion. Listening to Britten’s own recording though, with Sophie Wyss, is like hearing a new song, and there is a real frisson to the cold piano part.

Half way through the song the tempo slows, before the chromatic right hand line resumes, sounding here like part of a Debussy <Prélude, lending a note of mystery.

The orchestral version is very subtly scored, and the softly meandering piano comments appear to go to the harp.

Recordings used

Sophie Wyss (soprano), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Anne Sofie von Otter (soprano), Bengt Forsberg (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Thomas Allen (baritone), Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)

Wyss and Britten create a very mysterious and quite disturbing atmosphere in this song. Wyss has a tremulous vibrato and Britten leaves the sustain pedal down on the piano to blur the notes. Of the other versions Felicity Lott is again the pick, with a relatively bright tone.


Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg are here, while Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson are here. The orchestral version, sung by Thomas Allen with Steuart Bedford conducting the Northern Sinfonia, can be found here

Also written in 1942: Martinů – Piano Quartet No.1

Next up: Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse

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

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