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12 of the best classical English songs

Which are the best English songs that captivate the singers and pianists who perform them? We put that very question to 12 of the finest

Best English songs

O Waly, Waly

Felicity Lott soprano says: “If I’m choosing a song that I’ve sung often and that moves me, it would be Britten’s arrangement of Waly Waly – I’ve been performing it for years. The text is lovely and simple, and the accompaniment is really simple too. The harmony changes so remarkably in the last verse – ‘Love is handsome and love is fine, and love is a jewel while it is new. But when it is old…’ – and then changes again on ‘cold’ where there’s this fantastic bleak chord. It’s such fun to try and capture the same kind of colour in the voice on the words, ‘And fades away like morning dew’.”

We named Britten one of the best English composers ever

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The Estuary

Thomas Allen baritone says: “Michael Head wrote a number songs with terrific charm, including The Estuary, which I’ve known since I was young. The poem it sets is by Ruth Pitter, who in 1955 was the first female recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. In the song, the central figure observes the quiet stillness of a marsh, the dunes and the afternoon sun. And then it builds up to the sight of a ship as it makes its way up the estuary. As the poet imagines where the ship might have been, we hear the description of the waves that stream from its bows and the seagulls that harry it. It’s very moving and very lovely.”

The Lads in their Hundreds

Anna Tilbrook pianist says:  “George Butterworth obviously read AE Housman’s poems when he was fighting in the First World War. Given what we know happened to him, the words of his The Lads in their Hundreds and the way he sets them are particularly moving. I find everything enormously poignant, and get goosebumps even thinking about it. The postlude at the end, when he takes the piano up to the top F sharp… even talking about it makes me emotional. I have to keep myself in check, because I can get a bit too involved! The cycle that it comes from, Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad, was one of the first I ever performed with a baritone.”

Silent Noon

James Gilchrist tenor says: “In Silent Noon, Vaughan Williams brilliantly sets a very fine poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The song paints a picture of lying in a summer meadow with your beloved. It is superbly constructed – with some delicious, perfectly positioned key changes – and Vaughan Williams conjures up the stillness of a hot sunny midday with a depiction of the comfort of the natural world around us. There’s one moment where the voice is left almost alone, as the words talk about a dragonfly holding still in the air at the edge of one’s vision – you get the sense of the music hanging in exactly the same way as the dragonfly.”

The Herd Boy’s Song

Ailish Tynan soprano says: “When I first came across The Herd Boy’s Song by Arthur Oldham, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. The song sets an eastern text about a little boy who is herding an ox and then rides it along by the riverside – along the way, we hear details such as what he’s wearing and so on. What I love so much about this song is the way it is about freedom, about the time when children could go out from dawn to dusk, be free and have fun. It’s so full of joy. The music itself is quite chromatic in places, and yet that chromaticism lies so beautifully within the general melodic feel of the song that you don’t even notice it.”

 

Shallow Brown

Iain Burnside pianist says: “Shallow Brown by Percy Grainger is a sea shanty about a woman waving goodbye to her man as he goes off to sea. But, as often in the case in gender-bending folk songs, it’s often sung by a man. It seems really repetitive and uncomplicated, because Grainger arranges it in a seemingly straightforward way, but it’s much greater than the sum of its parts and it builds up to a big climax. There’s a misconception about English song being very pastoral and idyllic. In fact, it thrives when sung by generous voices with a lot of passion and conviction. They actually respond very well to being performed like French song or like German Lieder, with a lot of heart and gumption.”

 

Sleep

Roderick Williams baritone says: “I remember hearing tenor Ian Partridge sing Ivor Gurney’s Sleep at Joy Finzi’s memorial service in Hampshire when I was part of the Finzi Singers, and it made a huge impression on me. I think it’s the subject matter – longing to get to sleep and what sleep can mean in a more metaphysical or profound sense. It is everything that an English song should be, and the key change at the end is to die for. There’s also a fantastic orchestration of it for strings by Finzi, which baritone Christoper Maltman recorded with the BBC Scottish Symphony under Martyn Brabbins. It’s a stonking piece of singing.”

Lizbie Browne from Earth and Air and Rain

Sholto Kynoch pianist says:  “Lizbie Browne from Gerald Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain cycle was the first English song I got to know well as an undergraduate. It’s such an illuminating piece of music to work on pianistically, as it has such interesting counterpoint with so many colours, and there’s an amazing marriage of words and music. It’s a song of loss and regret: the woman that he loves, Lizbie Browne, was never his and he never declared his love. You don’t see Finzi’s music in concert programmes all that often. Maybe it doesn’t give audiences the instant fix that they want with a big tune! It’s often considered musicians’ music, because it’s so wonderful to inhabit.

Bird Songs at Eventide

Kathryn Rudge mezzo says: “It’s almost impossible to choose just one piece, but Bird Songs at Eventide by Eric Coates was love at first sight for me. I find it immediately captures the imagination with the tinkling notes of birds singing in the piano accompaniment and visions of a golden sunset over quiet ‘Herbert Howells’s King David is a perfect example of magical storytelling’ hills. It offers a moment of reflection and conveys feelings of love and longing encapsulated by Royden Barrie’s beautiful words and Coates’s music. It’s awesome from start to finish – a gift of a song.”

Music For A While

Allan Clayton tenor says:  “Henry Purcell’s Music for a While is one of the first songs that I learned as a very bad schoolboy tenor. I was blown away by how simple it was and how much it spoke to me emotionally. This is about the power of music to calm, ease and revive. The combination of text and snaking ground bass is beguiling enough. Then you add Tippett and Bergmann’s arrangement and you get these even more beautiful clashes and suspensions. There’s real enjoyment of the English language as well – Purcell uses the ‘m’ of music, which is quite a sexy consonant. The way that the ground bass returns to the home key and the familiar three-bar phrase on the word ‘music’ is just spine-tingling.”

Every Night

Julius Drake pianist says:  “The song that always makes me cry is Every Night and Every Morn from Benjamin Britten’s cycle Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. The words are almost eccentrically simple but Britten somehow gets to the very heart of the poem – he was a genius at finding the essence of the poetry very quickly. Often the first few notes capture so much about the poem that a three-minute song feels like a symphony. Here he writes a very basic melody, just on a few notes. In the piano part, there’s this sort of ostinato bass moving up and down. He almost limits himself. It’s not wide-ranging in any way. But something about the flow and movement of this, and the building to a climax at the end, makes an overwhelming impact. Britten is the greatest composer of song of the 20th century.”

King David

Kitty Whately mezzo says: “I started singing Herbert Howells’s King David as a teenager and have been singing it ever since. It’s so touching and simple. King David is extremely unhappy and no one knows why, until he goes out into the garden and hears a nightingale singing, at which point the song moves into a major key and you can finally breathe. I squeeze it into every programme I can – it’s a perfect example of magical storytelling. English song is home for me. It’s in my language so I feel like I own it, and I know the landscapes so intimately. My dad was a folk singer in the 1970s, so we were brought up on folk harmonies, which are so present in English song.”

Buy a recording of Kitty Whately performing King David from Amazon

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