Listening to Britten – Sally in our alley

Gracie Fields in the film Sally in our Alley, which takes its title from the song. Image from British Pictures

Sally in our alley (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 5 no.2 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high voice and piano (pre 22 June 1959, Britten aged 45)

Dedication Not known
Text Henry Carey
Language English
Duration 4′

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)

Sally in our alley (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

Sally in our alley (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Although Britten’s published arrangement of this song dates from 1959, he and Peter Pears had been performing it since the early 1940s in America, one of the very first songs he had arranged.

Then, however, the performance was improvisatory. Pears had written down the melody and the text, but Britten was still prone to constructing the accompaniment on the night of performance – which in this case was identified by John Bridcut as 12 November 1940. When he finally published his thoughts on the song they had changed a little, but broadly kept the spirit of the original.

Lewis Foreman details how Britten and Pears used to perform a group of songs under the title Four Old English Characters. These were Sally in our Alley, The Plough Boy, Charles Dibdin’s Tom Bowlingand The Lincolnshire Poacher.


Unashamedly romantic, Sally in our Alley tells its tale with a strong sense of longing. As a point of speculation, I did wonder if Britten set these words partly because of the famous tune but also because the lyrics enabled him and Pears to express their feelings for each other under the comfortable cloak of the tale of a boy-girl relationship. It was the early 1940s, after all!

Another factor is the feeling Pears puts in to their performance, for the trajectory of the vocal line suits his fuller tenor voice. Britten’s piano lines are faithful and cast the tune firmly and almost luxuriously in D major.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

Pears and Britten give a deeply felt performance, as do Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson, though Langridge’s tone is slightly leaner and more vulnerable. Jamie MacDougall’s performance is more towards that of Pears.


Pears and Britten can be heard here. An interesting comparison with the version for string orchestra by Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge can be made here, with Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Also written in 1959: Walton – Anon in Love

Next up: The Lincolnshire poacher

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