Listening to Britten – The Golden Vanity, Op.78

Image of score courtesy of The Open Doorway website

The Golden Vanity, Op.78 – a vaudeville for boys and piano after the old English ballad (26 August 1966, Britten aged 52)

Dedication Fur die Wiener Sängerknaben
Text Colin Graham
Language English
Duration 18′

Audio clips (from the recording with Mark Emney, John Wojciechowski, Barnaby Jago, Adrian Thompson, Terry Lovell, Wandsworth School Boys Choir / Benjamin Britten, Russell Burgess (piano))

There was a ship came from the North Country

Then up spake the cabin-boy

Casting his clothes off, he dived into the sea

They laid him on the deck

Background and Critical Reception

The Vienna Boy’s Choir, tired of singing girls’ parts in operas (as recounted by John Bridcut!) commissioned the vaudeville The Golden Vanity from Britten in 1966. They performed it for the first time at the following year’s Aldeburgh Festival, as part of the first concert at the Snape Maltings following its official opening.

Britten worked with Colin Graham on the libretto of what is in effect a small opera, known by Graham as ‘a miniature Billy Budd‘. Bridcut succinctly describes the plot. ‘It tells the story of a battle at sea, and a cabin-boy who ensures victory for the crew of The Golden Vanity by drilling holes in the pirate ship they are fighting, and sinking it. His captain reneges on his promised reward (the hand of his daughter), and leaves the boy to drown. But the spirit of the boy returns at the end of the piece, just as in Curlew River two years before.

The work’s entry in the Britten Thematic Catalogue carries the following note, which Britten wrote on the score: ‘The Vaudeville should be given in costume but without scenery …The action…should be mimed in a simple way and only a few basic properties, such as telescopes and a rope, are needed . . . A drum should be used for the sound of cannon fire.’

As Sophie Biddell writes in the booklet for the recording made by Christ Church Cathedral Oxford and Stephen Darlington, ‘the music is permeated by folk-like shapes that bring to mind traditional English sea-shanties, although an undertone of dissonance and chromaticism reminds us that the story is in fact a dark one of betrayal and death.’ And later, ‘the work’s pungent harmonies (including abundant semitonal clashes in the piano part) help to create an uncomfortable and at times even raucous effect.’

She concludes by writing, ‘we are nonetheless presented with a tragic, typically Brittenesque hero; the lonely, suffering boy, abandoned by all those around him.’


Britten turns once again to the world of Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep for this maritime tale, employing a choir of boys to tell the story of The Golden Vanity.

It is a perky mini-opera that is doubtless a lot of fun to sing, and a lot happens in eighteen minutes of plot. The props are doubtless good fun, too – the firing of cannons and the swooshing of the sea water – but are not too much that it becomes difficult for amateur forces to take on.
Musically there is a lot going on, and the spiced up harmonies in the piano part mean the music fizzes with incident and character. There is a lot of extraneous noise when listening on headphones, too, which gives the impression of movement.

The fast moving plot is essentially a condensed version of Billy Budd, but this is told with a much lighter spring in the step, lacking much of the impending doom that Budd’s bigger score implicates.

And yet there is that darker side. Although the music strives to be bright and breezy the story has other ideas, and ultimately ends in tragedy. The moral tale may be lost on young boys, but for those adults watching it would become abundantly clear.

My biggest struggle with The Golden Vanity was purely identifying the characters, which made it difficult to appreciate the story as a whole. Because the cast is trebles only Britten has less room for manoeuvre even than in Billy Budd, so it is hard to make out one character from another. Added to that, the piano-only accompaniment can be rather dry, with a ‘silent movie’ feel to it. The pictures in this instance feel black and white rather than technicolour.

Britten’s economical writing means The Golden Vanity does not outstay its welcome, mind, and the fast-changing set of tableaus take us through the story in double quick time. The story itself is quite entertaining, but because the means are so limited it becomes difficult to fully appreciate Britten’s achievement on record. I am sure a live performance would be much more effective.

Recordings used

Mark Emney, John Wojciechowski, Barnaby Jago, Adrian Thompson, Terry Lovell, Wandsworth School Boys Choir / Benjamin Britten, Russell Burgess (piano) (Decca)
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford / Stephen Darlington, Clive Driskill-Smith (piano)

Both available recordings are full of incident and personality. Britten’s own version on Decca is a fast moving affair, enjoying the sea shanty-like melodies and the crunchy harmonies, not to mention the sound effects. Equally impressive are the Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Oxford, and Stephen Darlington oversees a brightly voiced version, part of a disc including other works for boys’ choir – Children’s Crusade, the Missa Brevis and A Ceremony of Carols.


Both versions of The Golden Vanity, conducted by Benjamin Britten and Stephen Darlington respectively, can be heard on this playlist.

Also written in 1966 – Arnold: Cornish Dances, Op.91

Next up: Choral Dances from Gloriana

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

3 Responses to Listening to Britten – The Golden Vanity, Op.78

  1. Roderick Somerville says:

    I could be mistaken but, as far as I am aware, the first recording (LP) of The Golden Vanity was made at the Craighall Studios in Edinburgh in July 1968 by a choir from The Edinburgh Academy (conductor Brian Head; piano Keith Griffiths). I sang the part of the captain.
    Roderick Somerville

    • Fabulous. Thank you for that Roderick. Do you happen to know who made the recording?

      • Roderick Somerville says:

        I don’t know the names of the recording engineer(s) at the Craighall Studios but I do know that only 30 or 40 (private) copies of the LP were produced (I have one of them). Apparently, the studios and the company with which Britten had a contract could not agree on terms for issuing the recording commercially. I also remember Brian Head saying that Britten had sent him a letter in which he commented favourably on the recording. I would dearly love to get hold of a copy of that letter!

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