Listening to Britten – Oft in the stilly night

Ireland Overnight: Dublin via Holyhead/Belfast via Heysham (British Railways poster artwork) by Claude Buckle. (c) The artist’s estate. Photo (c) National Railway Museum

Oft in the stilly night (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.8 (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 3′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)

Oft in the stilly night (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Britten was not afraid to take on some of the more famous folksong melodies. Oft in the stilly night is a beloved folksong of Ireland, and it was apparently sung by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Given how famous the song is it is perhaps surprising to find so little written about it in Britten literature. That only leads me to conclude scholars do not think it as good as some of the others in the fourth book.


When setting especially famous folksong tunes, Britten appeared to see it as a challenge to see how far he could remove them from their original context. So it is with Oft in the stilly night, a watery accompaniment spreading chords around the singer with approximate canons.

Yet once again Britten uses a strange inversion of the home key’s main chord, as he did when setting The Minstrel Boy. Even when the bass does alight on the ‘right’ note – A flat – the harmonies change so that the song never settles right until the end.

Because of this the setting has an air of disquiet about it.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

Pears’ full voice suits this song very well, but perhaps enhances the contrast between the well-loved melody and the distant harmonies of its accompaniment. Britten plays these so that an odd, enchanted air hangs over their performance.

Felicity Lott sings beautifully, and the more reverberant recording helps perspective – as it does with Regina Nathan, whose tone is a little sharper but highly attractive also.


Pears and Britten can be heard here, while Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson are here. To illustrate how different Britten’s setting is to the traditional, compare with Stuart Burrows here.

Also written in 1957: Roger Sessions – Symphony no.3

Next up: The last rose of summer

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