Listening to Britten – At the mid hour of night

In the Dargle Country, Ireland by James Arthur O’Connor. Photo (c) Museums Sheffield

In the mid hour of night (Molly, My Dear) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.5 (Moore’s Irish Melodies)) – folksong arrangement for high voice and piano (1957, Britten aged 43)

Dedication Anthony Gishford – director of Boosey & Hawkes
Text Thomas Moore
Language English
Duration 2’30”

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)

At the mid hour of night (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s preoccupation with the themes of night appeared to be growing in the late 1950s. We have already heard The Charm of Lullabies from ten years prior, but whereas that was about trying to get other people – children – to sleep, he appeared to be turning to subjects who were not able to do so.

One such example is the figure at the centre of At the mid hour of night, fifth in the group of ten Irish folksong settings as published in 1960.

Britten was to further dwell on the themes of night the following year, with the Nocturne for tenor and orchestra – and five years later with the Night Piece for piano and the Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar. It was an area of fearful fascination for him.


This is an absolute beauty, a pure example of where simplicity works best in Britten’s folksong arrangements. The piano sets a very softly lit scene in E flat major, operating at a similar tempo to The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray, mindful perhaps of how ‘the stars are weeping’ in the text, and the singer begins.

This is the sort of song that leaves a warm glow when experienced live, and indeed when I witnessed Robin Tritschler singing it this year in the Wigmore Hall nobody moved when he had finished. It is a still nocturne of the very deepest thought.

Recordings used

Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

There is no version from Pears and Britten of this song, but Mark Padmore ensures the listener’s attention is held throughout, helped by the softly voiced piano of Roger Vignoles. His slightly warmer tones evoke a hot summer’s evening, whereas Philip Langridge’s voice is slightly leaner, with more of a chill to the night breeze.

Regina Nathan sings well too, though for me the soprano is a little too bright for this most subdued of songs.


Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles can be heard here, Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson here, and an extra recording from soprano Ailish Tynan and pianist Iain Burnside can be heard here.

Also written in 1957: Stockhausen – Gruppen

Next up: Rich and rare

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – At the mid hour of night

  1. Joe Bryce says:

    Completely new to me, and absolutely wonderful, thank you.

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