Listening to Britten – This way to the Tomb: Evening – Morning – Night

Illustrations for English, Scottish and Welsh Landscapes 1944 by John Piper. (c) The Piper Estate

Evening – Morning – Night from This way to the Tomb – for voice and piano (1944 – October 1945, Britten aged 31)

Text Ronald Duncan
Duration 4’30”

1 Evening
2 Morning
3 Night


A clip from each of the three songs, sung by Gerald Finley with Julius Drake at the piano. With thanks to Hyperion.




Background and Critical Reception

When you consider Britten was a morning composer – he was always up early and writing – it is curious to note that he wrote a lot more about the night time than he did the day. Yet these three brief songs, written as part of the incidental music for Ronald Duncan’s play This Way to the Tomb, cover a more or less complete 24-hour cycle.

Britten’s artistic relationship with Duncan was long-lasting, Philip Reed noting in the booklet note for Ian Bostridge’s Red Cockatoo release that it had begun with the Pacifist March of 1937. It included not just this expansive play but Britten’s next opera, The Rape of Lucretia.

John Bridcut talks of how the three songs ‘deserve to be better known’…being ‘pumped with Duncan’s purple imagery’. One example he gives is how ‘Night is no more than a cat which creeps to the saucer of light’.

The songs can be performed by voice with either piano or harp.


Relative miniatures they may be, but Evening, Morning and Night are concentrated musical gems, and it is no wonder singers of the calibre of Ian Bostridge and Gerald Finley have committed them to disc!

Britten’s preoccupation with Purcell is clear in the thrummed chords of Evening, which has the rather disconcerting lyric of ‘the red fox, the sun, tears the throat of the evening’. It is a bold setting in B major, the key Britten used at the end of the Holy Sonnets. Morning casts of the shackles with a bright call, the piano cross rhythms suggesting a burst of energy at the start of the day. It lasts little more than a minute.

Night is more solemn and thoughtful. As with so many Britten evocations of this time of day it is a mixture of contented rest and slightly worrisome thoughts around the edges, the demons making themselves known but pushed to the back of the mind.

Britten can’t resist using a passacaglia once again for Night, which is more solemn and thoughtful. The choice of a ground bass again draws the Purcell comparison, and its unusual profile aids the slightly disorienting atmosphere.
The end is one of the composer’s classic final cadences, seemingly moving away from the home key but then, with the slightest of harmonic movements, returning in an instance.

Britten was preoccupied with the passacaglia form throughout his life, and while writing this he was crafting a much more substantial model as the finale of his String Quartet no.2, which is up next!

Recordings used

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)

Both versions are top notch, as you might expect with performers of this calibre, and Bostridge sings extremely well in his lower range. However my preference is for the baritone Finley, as the songs fall beautifully within his compass, and his voice has a burnished quality that suits them to a tee.


Unfortunately neither of these versions is available to stream, though a good portion of each song can be heard by using the audio clips above.

Also written in 1945: Malipiero – Symphony no.3

Next up: String Quartet no.2 in C major, Op.36

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

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