Listening to Britten – The brisk young widow

Portrait of a Young Lady by Michael William Sharp. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The brisk young widow (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 5 no.1 – folksong arrangement for high voice and piano (pre 24 January 1954, Britten aged 40)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)
The brisk young widow (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

The brisk young widow (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Although the Britten Thematic Catalogue does not list The brisk young widow as such, it does appear to be the first of Britten’s fifth volume of folksong settings. The last one we heard was Ca’ the yowes, from three years previously – during which time Britten had completed two operas.

The song uses a tune collected by Cecil Sharp (from George Radford in Somerset, 1905). Lewis Foreman, writing about the folksongs in Hyperion’s complete set, quotes the composer Hugh Wood, who said about this set that ‘a cold wind is blowing over the garden’.


Despite Hugh Wood’s comments, this would seem to be one of the more jovial songs in the fifth volume of folksongs. It has a sprightly piano part that introduces the five verses, each of them brisk themselves, and vibrant too.

There is an almost imperceptible wink to the audience throughout this entertaining song as the piano part trips along, and the more the singer rolls his ‘r’s the more English it seems to become!

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

Langridge and Johnson continue to be a delight in the folksongs, and give this particular song a bracing charm. Yet once again for a definitive account Pears and Britten cannot be beaten, taking the song at a faster pace and clearly revelling in the words. The younger singer Jamie MacDougall could almost be the ‘brisk young farmer’ the song mentions!


Pears and Britten are here, while Langridge and Johnson can be found here. Christopher Maltman, a fine English baritone, is found in partnership with Julius Drake here.

Also written in 1954: Finzi – Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.40

Next up: The Turn of the Screw, Op.54

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