Listening to Britten – The Oxen

Plowing with Oxen Teams (1866) by William Watson, used courtesy of the MSOE website

The Oxen, carol for women’s voices (two parts) and piano (19 April 1967, Britten aged 53)

Dedication For Cecily Smithwick and the East Coker W.I.
Text Thomas Hardy
Language English
Duration 3′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten was asked to write a carol for inclusion in the National Federation of Women’s Institutes’ Book of Carols, for publication in 1968.

The request came from Peter Pears’ sister, Jessie, who asked all the Somerset branches of the WI to submit possible texts for him to use. He elected to choose Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen, as suggested by Cecily Smithwick. This was his first setting of the poet since Winter Words.

Paul Spicer, in his Britten Choral Guide for Boosey & Hawkes, describes the carol as ‘straightforward for singers and memorably effective’, and suggests it as a companion concert piece for the earlier Fancie.


Once again time stands still for a piece of Britten Christmas music; a radiant piece that is almost as static as the driven snow.

This is a particularly beautiful setting, the slow tolling of the piano chords recounting the text that speaks of ‘twelve of the clock’, while the children sing softly and wondrously of the season. Hardy’s text comes to life in the subtle treatment that Britten gives it, so we are fully aware of ‘the meek mild creatures where they dwelt in their strawy pen’.

There is a hushed reverence that runs throughout, encouraging the listener to stay quiet and thoughtful long after the music has finished. It is all too easy, given the spell Britten has cast.

Recordings used

New London Children’s Choir / Ronald Corp, Alexander Wells (piano) (Naxos)
Andrew Swait (treble), James Bowman (countertenor), Andrew Plant (piano) (Signum Classics)

The New London Children’s Choir get this just right, very quiet and solemn, but with a sense of wonder. The combination of James Bowman and Andrew Swait is effective too, if a little less indicative of a child’s wonder of Christmas.


The New London Children’s Choir, directed by Ronald Corp, can be heard here.

Also written in 1967: Andy Williams – Music to watch girls by

Next up: Suite for solo cello no.2, Op.80

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

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