Listening to Britten – The Holly and the Ivy

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

The Holly and the Ivy – folksong arrangement for high voice and piano (date unknown)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2’30

Audio clip

A clip of the only recording of this arrangement, made by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson, can be heard on the All Music website

Background and Critical Reception

Britten made two arrangements of the famous carol The Holly and the Ivy – one for choir, completed by July 1957, and this short version for voice and piano, about which very little is known – and as an educated guess I have placed it here.

Philip Reed, in his booklet note for the complete folksongs as issued by Collins Classics in 1995, says that ‘no direct evidence linking it with one of the published folksong collections has emerged’, but that ‘it is a characteristic Britten arrangement which revitalizes a familar – over familiar? melody and is quite different in approach to the a cappella version.


The Holly and the Ivy is such a well-known and well-loved Christmas tune that it is a daring hand indeed who decides to take it on in a newly formed arrangement. Britten was of course well qualified to do that, but this realisation does to me at least feel a bit superfluous. Perhaps it was conceived with Christmas recitals with Pears in mind.

The words are slightly different to those we are used to – the ‘playing of the merry harp’, for one, and while Britten’s arrangement certainly keeps the cold and frosty feel of Christmas, it almost deliberately puts a few alien harmonies and extra notes in to make sure we’re not as cosy as we might have been. An alternative arrangement is never a bad thing, and I may feel differently about this one by Christmas, but on this occasion the original wins hands down.

Recordings used

Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

The bright timbre of Felicity Lott’s voice is ideal for this rendition, with perky support from Graham Johnson.


Lott and Johnson can be found here, part of the definitive modern collection of Britten folksong arrangements curated by Graham Johnson for Collins Classics in 1995.

Next up: Scherzo for recorder quartet

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – The Holly and the Ivy

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Holly and the Ivy | Good Morning Britten

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