Listening to Britten – Sail on, Sail on

George IV On Board the ‘Lightning’, the First Post Office Steam Packet to Dublin, 12 August 1821 by William John Huggins. Photo (c) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Sail On, Sail On (The Humming of the Ban) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.2 (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)

Sail on, Sail on (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Eric Roseberry, in his chapter on Britten’s folksong arrangements in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, notes that ‘a detailed chronology of this collection has still to be established – and some of these settings may date back as far as 1942.

Yet neither Roseberry nor Bridcut talk of this simple song, which appears to date from 1957 – another of the collection that appears to have fallen from view in the wake of its more famous cousins.

The Britten Song Database entry for the song describes its subject matter as ‘the continuation of life until the sweet release of death’.


The description above explains the subdued air of this simple utterance. To begin with I found the music rather frustrating due to its lack of variety, with a stubborn refusal to develop beyond a lilting rhythm of two beats followed by one.

And yet after a few hearings I found I had softened my approach, especially if the singer varied the dynamics for the third verse, and found it possessing a similar wistful charm to the much more famous Come Ye Not From Newcastle.

Its resigned air may ensure it is unlikely to be popular, but it is nonetheless a subtly attractive setting.

Recordings used

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

Pears and Britten did not leave a version of this folksong, but there are two very fine accounts from seasoned Britten interpreters.

Felicity Lott sings the third verse very attractively, the hushed tone drawing the listener in and making much more of the song, while Mark Padmore keeps a measured tone throughout, helped by Roger Vignoles’ limpid piano playing.

Regina Nathan is good, too, slightly sharper in sound than Lott but almost as attractive in execution – no mean feat when compared with such a respected singer of English song.


Pears and Britten can be heard here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johson are here. Meanwhile Ailish Tynan sings the song as part of her release An Irish Album with Iain Burnside here. A more traditional arrangement of the song can be heard in this recording by John McCormack.

Also written in 1957: Martinů – The Greek Passion

Next up: How sweet the answer

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