Listening to Britten – O Waly, Waly

Suffolk – Thames Barges Fitting Out by Edward Seago. Photo (c) Estate of Edward Seago courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

O Waly, Waly (from Somerset) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 3 no.6 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 31 October 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication Joan Cross
Text Cecil Sharp
Language English
Duration 1’30”

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)

O Waly, Waly (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

O Waly, Waly (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

O Waly, Waly is a folksong of Somerset origin, though as Lewis Foreman explains in his notes for Hyperion’s compelte set of the folksongs, Cecil Sharp collected three versions of it. Britten’s subsequent arrangement appears to be a hybrid of words and text from each of the three.

Foreman observes how ‘Britten’s accompaniment contrasts the lover’s predicament with the inexorable impersonality of the sea’. John Bridcut talks of the ‘high-minded love, touchingly created’ by the song, which is ‘effectively an unaccompanied song with piano’.


This is one of the most substantial and profound of Britten’s folksong settings, and it is easy to imagine it being sung by a full-throated male voice choir. Unfortunately there is no arrangement for those forces, but a single voice and piano brings out the deep sense of longing that runs throughout.

As with so many of these arrangements the song is led not just by the tune but by Britten’s piano part also, and when we get to the fourth verse, ‘A ship there is, and she sails the sea, She’s loaded deep, as deep can be’, Britten somehow moves into a different key and the piano chords take on an expansive and rather grand form, portraying the size of the ship. This is equally effective in the version for voice and string orchestra.

Ultimately this is quite an introspective and solemn affair, leaving its listener deep in contemplation by the end.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Elizabethan Singers / Louis Halsey, Wilfrid Parry (piano) (Eloquence)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Britten Sinfonia / Daniel Harding (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)

Again Britten and Pears are the partnership that bring the most from this song, and Britten’s control of the piano part as the verses become more expansive is extremely impressive. The other versions are very good, though – and the Elizabethan Singers bring a certain purity to their unison account.

With orchestra Ian Bostridge finds a lovely tone, coupled with a very careful and effective use of vibrato, and as the strings gradually swell so the song grows in emotive power.


Pears and Britten once again head the field, with their version for Decca here. Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson are here, while a striking version from countertenor David Daniels and Julius Drake can be accessed here

Britten’s orchestral version is popular on record, too – and Ian Bostridge can be heard in it with the Britten Sinfonia here – or Philip Langridge with the Northern Sinfonia here

Also written in 1946: Stravinsky – Concerto for strings in D major

Next up: A morning hymn

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