Listening to Britten – Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was…’, Op.90

Picture (c) Brian Hogwood

Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was…’, Op.90 for chamber orchestra (October – 16 November 1974, Britten aged 60)

1 Cakes and ale
2 The bitter withy
3 Hankin Booby
4 Hunt the squirrel
5 Lord Melbourne

Dedication Lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger
Duration 14′


Extracts from each of the five movements can be heard on this Amazon page, with Steuart Bedford conducting the Northern Sinfonia on Naxos.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s Suite on folk tunes (A time there was) takes its title from words in the Thomas Hardy poem Before life and after, with which the Hardy cycle Winter Words ends. It has five short, linked movements that concentrate on two folk songs each – details of which can be found on the entry for the work in the Britten Thematic Catalogue. It is Britten’s last solely orchestral work, receiving its first performance at the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival.

The Suite is ‘lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger’. Arnold Whittall notes that ‘Britten’s own creatively penetrating way with folk tunes links him to Grainger, and this suite, his last orchestral work, is therefore an appropriate tribute; economical, forceful and, in the final movement, which uses the tune Lord Melbourne as collected by Grainger, deeply melancholy.’

This final movement holds the key to the piece. As Neil Powell points out, the question asked in Before life and after – ‘How long, how long?’ – was ‘precisely the one Britten continued to ask about his own increasingly improbable recovery’, and is the one seemingly addressed by the cor anglais solo.

Britten started work on the suite while on holiday with his nurse Rita Thomson, at Wolfsgarten in Germany. Its beginning was seen by Donald Mitchell as ‘a way of making a home for Hankin’ Booby, a sombre, even acrid little piece he wrote for the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1967. In its solitary state there was not much of a future for it; and we often talked about the possibility of creating a context for it. The Suite solved the problem.’

For Humphrey Carpenter, A Time There Was undoubtedly reflects what Rita Thomson calls his ‘point of acceptance’ that autumn that his active life was over, and suggests that he had come to terms with more than the imminence of death.’


If the Suite on English Folk Tunes is an acceptance of mortality, it is an extremely resilient one. In keeping with Britten’s other late works not a note is wasted, the ten folk tunes tightly compacted into a five movement suite that lasts barely thirteen minutes.

There are certain similarities to Britten’s treatment of folksong here when compared to the settings for voice and piano. He turns original material into a composition that could only be from his hand, but gives each of the ten tunes plenty of room to breathe. Again what the other orchestral parts provide is far from pure ‘accompaniment’, with intelligent and meaningful counter melodies and scoring that is both economical and incredibly affecting.

The scoring is very fine too, darkly flavoured but with plenty of character. The plangent cor anglais solo for Lord Melbourne stands out, its scoring reminding me of some of E.J. Moeran’s more sombre moments. By contrast the raucous violins that begin Hunt the Squirrel are wonderfully earthy, and Hankin’ Booby itself, a sour little tune, calls on Britten’s experience in the far East for its colourful percussion.

I am amazed this short and appealing suite is not heard more often, for it offers a thoroughly valid counterpoint to Vaughan Williams’ treatment of folksongs for orchestra. That it is done by a man not in the best of health is all the more remarkable, for if anything it is of a finer quality than much of Britten’s earlier orchestral music, the tunes beautifully and very effectively woven together.

Recordings used

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
English Symphony Orchestra / William Boughton (Nimbus)

It is a mystery that A time there was… is one of Britten’s least-recorded orchestral works.

There are four principal versions, led by Sir Simon Rattle and Richard Hickox, who serve up extremely responsive accounts that link together seamlessly, and the English Symphony Orchestra under William Boughton, whose performance is energetic without hitting the technical heights of the other two.

Yet I found Steuart Bedford’s account with the Northern Sinfonia to be the most affecting, possibly on account of his direct links to the music – he did after all conduct the premiere in 1975. The orchestral dimensions in this recording feel just right.


The four versions listed above can be accessed by way of this playlist.

Also written in 1974: Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

Next up: Sacred and Profane, Op.91

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

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was…’, Op.90

  1. Pingback: September 25th, 2014 | Classical Music with Jude Fox

  2. Thomas Roth says:

    Why did you not listen to the first, and still by far the best, recording? The one by Bernstein.

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