Listening to Britten – Ca’ The Yowes

Loch Etive, Argyllshire by George Vincent. Photo (c) The Fitzwilliam Museum

Ca’ The Yowes (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 5 no.5 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 9 April 1951, Britten aged 37)

Dedication Not known
Text Robert Burns
Language English
Duration 4’30”

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)

Ca’ The Yowes (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

Ca’ The Yowes (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

The order of publication of Britten’s folksong arrangements do not necessarily correspond with the order of composition – a trait which can indeed be applied to the rest of his output. And so it is that while we have been listening more recently to the third volume of the arrangements, suddenly we jump ahead to the fifth, and one of his most popular interpretations.

The wonderful Burns Country website talks through the history of the song, with text by Robert Burns that seems to be even earlier in origin.

In his booklet notes for Hyperion, Lewis Foreman talks about the ‘economy of gesture’ that is striking in the later folksong arrangements, and this song is something of an example.


A very solemn and grand song, Ca’ the yowes can give the singer real presence in a recital – but equally it can expose a lack of depth, especially if the singer falls victim to the temptation of opting for sheer volume at the expense of genuine expression.

Like several of Britten’s Scottish settings, it is a song of breadth, the majestic melody given an equally extravagant set of spread piano chords to accompany it. Because of its range it has proved as easy for mezzo-sopranos to sing as tenors or baritones, and because it crosses the ranges so effectively it is often heard in recital.

It is also rather moving, especially in the final declarations of love, as ‘thou hast stol’n my very heart; I can die but canna part, My bonnie dearie’.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Philip Ledger (piano) (EMI)
Mark Stone (tenor), David Owen Norris (piano) (Naxos)
Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano (Naxos)

Pears and Britten judge this slow burning song to perfection, setting a stately pace the whole way through, the words extremely clear but the harmonies rich and even. Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson are a lot faster – a whole minute and a half so – but Lott’s phrasing means that does not matter, especially in the breathtaking notes that she reaches in the final verse.

Mark Stone is a little more nasal in tone but notable for clarity also, while Robert Tear and Sir Philip Ledger give a majestic performance. Meanwhile Roderick Williams shows how well this song transcribes for the richness of the baritone voice – and Lorna Anderson likewise for the slightly shriller tones of the soprano.


Pears & Britten’s recording for Decca can be heard here, while Mark Wilde & David Owen Norris are here. Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson show how the song works equally well with soprano voice here, while baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Iain Burnside are here.

Also written in 1951: Dutilleux – Symphony no.1

Next up: Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op.49

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – Ca’ The Yowes

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The brisk young widow | Good Morning Britten

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s