Listening to Britten – Sweet Polly Oliver

Late Autumn, Trafalgar Square by Edward Seago. Photo (c) Estate of Edward Seago courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Sweet Polly Oliver (Old English Tune) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 3 no.3 (British Isles) – 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 Anon
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
Sweet Polly Oliver (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

If Peter Pears’ uncle was outraged enough to write his nephew a letter on the contents of The foggy, foggy dew, he would surely have had pen poised once again for the tale of the cross dressing Sweet Polly Oliver.

In it she takes her dead brother’s clothes and dresses as a soldier, searching far and wide and going as far as ‘fair London Town’ until she finds her true love, who she nurses back to health. It is, as John Bridcut says, ‘told with Britten’s delight in canon’.


Britten loved a canon – where a melody effectively follows its own tail at a predetermined distance – and Sweet Polly Oliver is one of his best.

There is definitely a glint in the eye of the piano part as it twinkles out the opening phrases, which the singer responds to in kind, and there is a sweetly romantic air to the song as it proceeds, signing off with an emphatic cadence as if to signal the happiest of endings.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Robert Tear (tenor), Philip Ledger (piano) (EMI)

Pears and Britten are of the ‘nod and a wink’ brigade in this song, and it’s impossible not to think of Pears addressing his uncle in that way. Britten plays along with the prank, as if they’re back at school. Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are a bit more serious but still very enjoyable, as are Robert Tear and Philip Ledger. Meanwhile Lorna Anderson is more shrill of tone as the cross dresser, followed at a respectful pace by the piano of Malcolm Martineau.


Pears and Britten are here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson can be found here.

Also written in 1945: Prokofiev – Ivan the Terrible

Next up: Deus in adjutorium meum

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