Listening to Britten – The Bitter Withy

River with Pollard Willows by Joséphine Bowes. Photo (c) The Bowes Museum

The Bitter Withy for tenor solo, boys’ voices and piano (pre 1 March 1962, Britten aged 48)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 5′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten began writing The Bitter Withy for the London Boys’ Singers to perform at the 1962 Aldeburgh Festival, but soon realised it was technically too difficult for them to sing. As a result the piece, also originally intended as Canticle IV, was not finished.

It survives in an edition by Colin Matthews, but not one that seeks to complete the work, which ends in mid air, half way through the seventh verse. While scored for boys’ choir and piano it features a tenor soloist, who was no doubt intended to be Pears.

In the end Britten wrote King Herod and the Cock and The Twelve Apostles for the London Boys’ Singers’ festival slot – and this arrangement was largely forgotten. However Philip Reed, writing in the booklet notes completed for the Collins Classics edition of the complete folksong settings, describes The Bitter Withy as ‘not in the strictest sense an arrangement but rather a composed piece whose inspiration derives from folk song’. He praises it as ‘an audaciously ambitious piece for tenor, divisi boys’ choir and piano.’


This is a strange song, with the cold of winter coursing through it. This may be something to do with the odd harmonies, but there is a real feeling of Britten experimenting with sonorities, using effects that ultimately became too taxing for the choir for whom he wrote.

The picture painting on the piano responds to the words ‘the stars from heaven did fall’ with a wonderful tumbling figure from the heights, and the piano part is very sparsely used in comparison to some of his earlier works with boys’ choir. The song breaks off in mid air, a little frustratingly, right in the middle of a treble solo. It would have been interesting to see how Britten finished the work, as the text ends rather aggressively with Sweet Mary giving our Saviour ‘lashes three’.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), The Wenhaston Bots Choir / Christopher Burnett, David Owen Norris (piano) (Naxos)

Very well recorded and performed, given the twisty nature of the vocal writing. Langridge is a commanding presence and the short choir solos are cleanly done.


The version described above, conducted by Christopher Burnett, can be heard here

Also written in 1962: Poulenc – Oboe Sonata

Next up: Um Mitternacht

This entry was posted in Choral, English, Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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