Listening to Britten – Dibdin: Tom Bowling

Norfolk – Waxham Church by Edward Seago. Photo (c) Estate of Edward Seago courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Dibdin: Tom Bowling realization for high voice and piano (pre 22 June 1959, Britten aged 45)

Dedication not known
Text Charles Dibdin
Language English
Duration 4’10”

Video clip performed by Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton:

Background and Critical Reception

The Britten Thematic Catalogue describes this song as an excerpt from Charles Dibdin’s ‘table entertainment’ The Oddities, completed in 1789. Britten and Pears had apparently been performing this realization in recitals for a number of years before publication.

It is both folksong arrangement and realization, falling neatly between the two, and was premiered in its published version at the 1959 Aldeburgh Festival, and Pears and Britten recorded it the same year. It can often be heard at the Last Night of the Proms, part of the Fantasia on British Sea Songs as completed by Sir Henry Wood.


This is one of those folksongs that is incredibly adaptable. It seems to work in every range, from bass to soprano, and every timbre – easy to imagine a male voice choir singing this as it is to hear a treble. Part of the reason for this flexibility is Britten’s arrangement, which gives the famous tune just a hint of harmonic dressing but very little more – and also stays well in the background throughout.

Because of this faithful harmonic setting the song can be very moving in the right performance, a soft and nostalgic melancholy running throughout.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Robert Tear (tenor), André Previn (piano) (EMI)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)
Andrew Swait (treble), Andrew Plant (piano) (Signum)

Four very different versions. Pears sings affectionately, and the ascent at the end of each verse is a real tearjerker, perfectly suited to his voice. Robert Tear has more vibrato and a brighter approach. The chocolatey baritone of Gerald Finley is softly supported by Julius Drake, transposed in to C major for a better suit to the singer’s range. Andrew Swait gives a pure, vibrato-less sound, very nicely sung with extremely well judged piano from Andrew Plant.


Pears and Britten can be heard here, while Robert Tear and André Previn are here. Meanwhile you can hear the song as part of Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs by clicking here.

Also written in 1959: Górecki – Symphony no.1

Next up: Fanfare for St Edmundsbury

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

One Response to Listening to Britten – Dibdin: Tom Bowling

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Sally in our alley | Good Morning Britten

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