Listening to Britten – The plough boy

A Norfolk Farm by Edward Seago. Photo (c) Estate of Edward Seago courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

The plough boy (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 3 no.1 (British Isles) – a tune by William Shield) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 27 September 1945, Britten aged 31)

Dedication Joan Cross, the creator of the role of Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
The plough boy (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

The success of Britten’s first two volumes of folksong arrangements meant a third was inevitable – and sure enough a new volume of British Isles arrangements were ‘rolled out’ to concert audiences over the course of 1945 and 1946. He began with a tune written by William Shield that had a piccolo solo. As Lewis Foreman writes, in his notes for the complete Hyperion set of folksong settings, ‘Britten’s opening tune, high on the piano – echoing Shield’s piccolo – exactly sets the mood.

This third volume was dedicated to Joan Cross, creator of the role of Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, who was working with Britten on the upcoming opera The Rape of Lucretia – which he completed before this volume was published.

There is an orchestral version of The plough boy, where as you would expect the piccolo takes up the tune.


An irresistible, charming and rather quirky song. From the sparkling piano introduction Britten wins over his listener, but the vocal line itself is a winner too, especially when sung with the sense of mischief that Peter Pears brings to it.

It is a lovely piece of light relief after the weighty Holy Sonnets, with a sense that Britten is using the folksongs to let his hair down a bit. This ridiculously catchy song ensures he does just that.

The orchestral version is good fun, but funnily enough the piano’s portrayal of the piccolo is arguably more enjoyable than the real thing!

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Christopher Maltman (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Virgin Classics)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)

Pears and Britten are definitely the ones to have, but Langridge and Johnson also enjoy the mischievous pranks of The Plough Boy. MacDougall and Maltman also find the right spirit of the words, but Maltman transposes down to G major for his version, which means the piano part is not quite as enjoyable.

Langridge gets a second go, with orchestra – a touch on the slow side maybe, but with all the humour still there.


Pears and Britten are here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson can be found here. The baritone version from Christopher Maltman and Julius Drake is here, while Philip Langridge sings the orchestral version here

Also written in 1945: Stravinsky – Ebony Concerto

Next up: There’s none to soothe

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – The plough boy

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Sally in our alley | Good Morning Britten

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