Listening to Britten – Oh Take Those Lips Away

Belle Vue Park and Yarmouth Road area, Lowestoft, 1926 – image courtesy of the Britain From Above website

Oh Take Those Lips Away – song for voice and piano (12 November 1926, Britten aged 12)

Text William Shakespeare
Language English
Duration 1′

Background and Critical Reception

Even on the verge of his teens Britten wrote best when he had a specific performer in mind. At this stage that ‘performer’ was his own mother, who Philip Reed describes as ‘never more than a good amateur musician’, but he goes on to note that ‘her constant encouragement of her youngest son brought from him a significant quantity of songs, most of which remain unpublished’.

This very early Shakespeare setting is a recent edition, and Reed’s words are from the booklet note accompanying its first recording on the second volume of a new Onyx series of the songs. The setting, from Measure for Measure, was published on 12 November 1926, just ten days before the fledgling composer’s thirteenth birthday.

It marks the first recorded encounter of Britten with Shakespeare – a series that, while not as plentiful as other textual sources, did nonetheless yield a number of short songs, music for King Arthur and the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


A brief but meaningful song that begins with trills from the piano and a stately introduction, before the tenor sings a bright line over the top.

Britten places extra emphasis on the phrase ‘songs of love’, the last word held out at a louder dynamic – and this phrase leaves the longest impression in the mind.

Recordings used

Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (world premiere recording) (Onyx)

Tritschler sings very clearly, while Martineau’s punctuation on the piano is ideally judged.


Not an easy one to find, though it is under the name of Song, here

Also written in 1926: Sæverud – Symphony in B flat minor

Next up: Etude for viola

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

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