Listening to Britten – Hadrian’s Wall: Roman Wall Blues

Britten and Auden, an image used by NMC for their free download of Roman Wall Blues

Hadrian’s Wall – Incidental music for male voice, chorus, percussion and string quartet (12 – 16 November 1937, Britten aged 23)

Approximately fifteen numbers, of which Roman Wall Blues is the only survivor.

Text W.H. Auden
Duration 2’30” (Roman Wall Blues only)


A free download of Roman Wall Blues was made available by NMC in 2013, and can be accessed by clicking here.

Background and Critical Reception

Another example of Britten and Auden’s collaborative work, Hadrian’s Wall was completed in quick time in 1937. Unfortunately the music is lost, but the vocal line for Roman Wall Blues appeared by chance in 2013.

Colin Matthews writes, on the NMC website, “I had only given it a quick look at the time, but enough to know that it was very much in the mode of Britten’s Cabaret Songs and the Funeral Blues from The Ascent of F6, both also composed in 1937″.

Matthews suggested to the author and journalist Charlotte Higgins that he attempt to write a piano part for the song, and the finished score is printed in her book, Under Another Sky – Journeys In Roman Britten. NMC, the company of which Matthews is a founder and Executive Producer, then made the song available as a free download as part of the Britten Centenary celebrations – and as part of the PR for their new release of Britten to America, featuring the first recordings of The Ascent of F6 and An American In England.


As Matthews rightly says, Roman Wall Blues is very closely related to the Funeral Blues from The Ascent of F6, and could easily fit in the four Cabaret Songs as an encore piece, being almost their equal.

Tinged with melancholy, it is also a rather stoical piece of work, ending ‘I shall do nothing but gaze at the sky’, but is ultimately a good example of a period when Britten was perhaps at his most ‘popular’ in terms of musical style.

Recordings used

Mary Carewe (soprano), Huw Watkins (piano) (NMC)

Carewe is right inside this music, having had previous experience of Britten film and cabaret scores – and her tone is ideal for the baleful text.


Roman Wall Blues can be heard here, as part of the Britten to America album

Also written in 1937: Berio – Pastorale for piano

Next up: An American in England

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

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