Listening to Britten – The Lincolnshire poacher


Scarecrow and Two Hares by Denham Jordan. Photo (c) Dorking Museum & Heritage Centre

The Lincolnshire poacher (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 5 no.3 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high voice and piano (pre 22 June 1959, Britten aged 45)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)

The Lincolnshire poacher (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca))

The Lincolnshire poacher (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Britten’s best-loved folksong settings, published as the third in a third volume of settings from the British Isles. The Wikipedia entry for the original suggests it to be the ‘unofficial county anthem of Lincolnshire’, though its first use appears to have been in York in the late eighteenth century.

For John Bridcut, ‘the brilliance of The Lincolnshire poacher owes much to Britten’s artfulness in keeping the piano in the tonic key the whole way through, whatever happens to the melody’.

Eric Roseberry, writing on the folksong settings in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, notes how the composer’s love of canonic writing recurs in the final verse, as ‘the piano right hand veers off into no less than three different (and increasingly ‘off-key’) intervallic relationships with the tune, before returning to the ‘normality’ of the octave’.

Thoughts

A crisp, bracing march for the outdoors is Britten’s setting for each verse of this famous song, telling the story of a successful raid on a gamekeeper’s territory and the killing of a hare.

When he gets to the refrain, though, the song pauses on the word ‘O’…before tripping along again in its extremely likable way.

Britten can’t resist adding a dusting of chromatic melody to the piano right hand in the last verse, and a few more spicy harmonies. It is touches like this that have made The Lincolnshire poacher an audience favourite.

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 exude sheer enjoyment in their version, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson make even more of the pauses that occur before each refrain. Jamie MacDougall is perhaps a little less rustic in his approach.

Spotify

Pears and Britten can be heard here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are here. By way of complete contrast, The Yetties perform The Lincolnshire poacher here.

Also written in 1959: Walton – Anon in Love

Next up: Cantata Academica, Carmen Basiliense, Op.62

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