Listening to Britten – Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) by Henri Rousseau. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74, for baritone voice and piano (April 1965, Britten aged 51)

Proverb I
Proverb II
The chimney-sweeper
Proverb III
A Poison Tree
Proverb IV
The tyger
Proverb V
The fly
Proverb VI
Ah, sun-flower!
Proverb VII
Every night and every morn

Dedication ‘For Dieter: the past and the future’
Text William Blake
Language English
Duration 26′


Clips from the recording made by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Benjamin Britten can be heard below. With thanks to Decca.

The Pride of the Peacock…London

Prisons are built…The Chimney Sweeper

The Bird anest…A Poison Tree

Think in the morning…The Tyger

The Tygers of wrath…The Fly

The hours of folly…Ah, Sun Flower

To see a world…Every night and every morn

Background and Critical Reception

Having already written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in two works with Peter Pears, Britten embarked on a full scale song cycle for the great baritone to sing at the Aldeburgh Festival. This was during the year of 1965, which Britten and Pears had set aside as a year of sabbatical, for recovery from illness and recuperation.

The poetry of William Blake had fascinated Britten for a long time, and this seemed the right vehicle for Fischer-Dieskau and Britten to explore together. The composer therefore embarked on a cycle of seven songs, each prefaced by a proverb, and all chosen by Pears. Remarkably this constituted Britten’s first major work for a lower voice range, and the dedication to Fischer-Dieskau was made in recognition of the death of the singer’s wife Irmgard in 1963, following complications at childbirth.
Some of the proverbs are short, pithy sentences (‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship’), lasting barely a minute in length, while the songs tend to be more substantial in response.

Britten commentators are in agreement that these are among the most challenging of the composer’s songs, technically demanding for singers where breath control is concerned, but also in terms of emotional content rather than musical quality for the audience. Mervyn Cooke describes how Britten ‘created a continuous structure in which the Proverbs are set to recurrent but constantly reworked ritornello material, a structural plan familiar from other Britten works of the late 1950s and early 1960s (principally Nocturne, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Cantata misericordium).’

Graham Johnson, in his chapter on the song cycles and collections for The Britten Companion, sums up the cycle perfectly. ‘Britten’s settings of Blake’s experiences of Hell recounted in the fervour of visionary innocence are unremittingly serious, dark and bleak. There is scarcely a trace of a smile anywhere in them, unless it is a smile of irony.’

However, ‘Although these songs inspire respect and admiration rather than affection, few would dispute that the cycle contains one of Britten’s greatest songs, Ah, Sun-flower.’ Here he references Britten’s own recording, and how his ‘own playing of he grace-notes and tremolandi of the accompaniment was other-worldly, like the rippling of that invisible solar energy which coaxed the flower to blossom and grow to its full majestic height.’


There is a great seriousness to Britten’s writing throughout this cycle, which is made even more pronounced by the choice of a baritone voice rather than a tenor. The lower, richer texture gives the songs a stern countenance, and by coupling it with a piano part that often spends time in the lower depths of the keyboard, Britten achieves a dark, steely sound. The songs are often pensive and lost in deep though, but occasionally emotions ranging from outright anger to worry and strife come directly to the surface.

The music is brooding and harmonically restless, in keeping with Britten’s recent music of the night but with an extra layer of darkness. Often the composer operates without an obvious tonal centre, but this is not serial music, though it does at times touch on twelve-tone approaches.

Britten’s word painting ability remains, however. After a stern flourish on the piano at the beginning, Britten expertly portrays the strutting of the peacock in the first proverb, before a dark painting of London, doubtless made easier given his overall dislike of the capital city.

Britten thinks nothing of a pretty radical setting for one of Blake’s most famous poems, The Tyger, and though his tiger burns bright in the forest it is restless and always on the move. The Poison Tree is a very different setting to the caustic setting Britten wrote in 1935, with a chill in the air as the man sings ‘I was angry with my friend’. It seems to go to a very private place, and while deeply thoughtful there are some less comfortable leaps and drops in the voice, before a thunderous conclusion. Proverb VI is worrisome thanks both to the piano and its lyric ‘the hours of folly are measured by the clock’, but Ah, Sun-flower is perhaps the most powerful song here. It is also one of the strangest, with a couple of bluesy inflections in the melody, suggesting Copland’s Old American Songs. while Every Night and Every Morn offers a highly concentrated finish to the cycle, closing in on a wondrous final chord.

This is a strange but very intense collection of songs that rewards time spent in its company, no matter how unremittingly heavy it can be at times. Blake’s thought provoking poetry will often strike out at a tangent but Britten is happy to follow it. The end result is a strangely elusive but equally compelling cycle of some emotionally hard hitting songs.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)
Benedict Nelson (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Fischer-Dieskau and Britten are a formidable team, emotionally at one as they paint the dark pictures of Britten’s mind, but Gerald Finley and Julius Drake should also be considered, with some probing insight into A Poison Tree and Ah, Sun-flower especially. They also have the benefit of digital recorded sound, as do Benedict Nelson and Malcolm Martineau, who bring a relatively fresh approach.


This playlist includes three versions – the ones described above by Fischer-Dieskau and Britten, Nelson and Martineau, but also a highly rated third version available on Naxos from Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside.

Also written in 1965: Gerhard – Concerto for Orchestra

Next up: Fancie

This entry was posted in English, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74

  1. Heard these live with Keenleyside and Martineau at the Barbican on Wednesday

    • Wow – I bet that was quite something. I get the impression they are among the most difficult songs in the baritone repertoire!

      • It was, they made up a substantial part of the second half of the concert, along with lieder by Schönberg, Wolf, Schubert, Brahms and others. As Keenleyside himself described it introducing the first of his encores, it was a ‘thoroughly suicidal evening’ in terms of the content of most of the material, but brilliantly performed (reviews in most of the major papers)

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