Listening to Britten – The Soldier and the Sailor

Lake Scene, with Two Men Fishing by James Stark. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The Soldier and the Sailor (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 6 no.4 (England)) – folksong arrangement (Oxfordshire) for high voice and guitar (pre 6 May 1956, Britten aged 42)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2’30”

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
The soldier and the sailor (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Craig Ogden (guitar))

Background and Critical Reception

This is the third and most substantial of the three folksong arrangements for voice and guitar given their premiere by Peter Pears and Julian Bream at the Wigmore Hall on 6 May 1956.

Lewis Foreman, in his notes for the recordings of the complete folksong arrangements on Hyperion, informs us that the source for this particular song was Cecil Sharp’s Collection of English Folksongs, Sharp having discovered the song in 1909.

A subtle change to the words by Britten brings it in to the 1950s, substituting ‘Queen’ for ‘King’.


A more sprightly song, this, with a guitar part that suggests quite a brisk walk for the soldier and the sailor, as they discuss their wishes for the Queen, her Army and Navy, and ‘a pot of good beer’.

More of a drinking song, then, which could quite easily be sung in the corner of a pub over a pint. It would work well, too, with a slightly wistful side to the otherwise forceful delivery that might encourage a tear or two at closing time!

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Julian Bream (guitar) (RCA)
Robert Tear (tenor), Timothy Walker (guitar) (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Carlos Bonell (guitar) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Craig Ogden (guitar) (Hyperion)
Ian Partridge (tenor), Jukka Savijoki (guitar) (Ondine)

It is interesting to note the different responses to the pronunciation of the word ‘Amen’ at the end of each verse. Pears opts for the more American ‘A-men’, and is followed by Ian Partridge, but Philip Langridge and Robert Tear are more English with their ‘Ah-men’. A subtle difference, maybe, but given the word occurs at the end of each of the four verses, it makes a big difference to which one you prefer.

Julian Bream’s counterpoint to the full bloom of Peter Pears’ voice is lively, with a spring in its step, while Jukka Savijoki is more reserved. Ian Partridge sings with complete ease, however – not complacency but a thorough understanding of the song.


Pears and Bream can be heard here, while Philip Langridge and Carlos Bonell are here. Meanwhile Ian Partridge and Jukka Savijoki can be found here, as part of their very interesting collection of Britten and Berkeley for Ondine.

Also written in 1956: Shostakovich – String Quartet no.6 in G major, Op.101

Next up: The heart of the matter

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