On This Island was Britten’s first published group of songs with piano. It sets five poems by Auden from the collection Look, Stranger! which had been published in 1936 and which included two poems dedicated to Britten. Compared to Britten’s previous song cycle, Our Hunting Fathers, which has a quasi-symphonic unity, On This Island is more a sequence of self-contained vignettes, perhaps reflecting the recent experience of composing the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. They are also notably simpler in their relatively orthodox approach to word-setting and use of more traditional harmony. Perhaps the most striking song is the fourth, Nocturne, which with its daring reliance on the most economical of musical means sounds perhaps the most personal note in the work and anticipates the inspired simplicities found in such later vocal works at Les Illuminations and the Michelangelo Sonnets.
The composition of the song cycle On This Island yielded eight Auden settings in total, only five of which were selected for the work in its final form. The set was originally designated ‘Vol.1’ and it therefore seems likely that Britten planned to use the remaining three songs in a proposed second volume which never materialised. In January of the following year, Britten set a further Auden poem from the collection Look, Stranger! entitled Fish in the Unruffled Lakes which was published as an independent item in 1947 and widely performed by Britten and Pears in their recital programmes. Two further settings, 'What’s in your mind' and 'Underneath the abject willow' were composed in the early 1940s, but remained in manuscript. These settings, along with the unused settings from 1937 were finally published under the title Fish in the Unruffled Lakes: Six settings of W.H.Auden in 1997.
'Underneath the abject willow' (also set by Britten in a version for two voices and piano as the second of his Two Ballads) is particularly noteworthy as the text is dedicated to Britten. In it, Auden appears to be encouraging his younger friend to break his natural reticence and abandon himself to an Albert Herring-like liberation. Refusing to be patronised, however, Britten’s jaunty setting of this text makes a curiously detached impression as if the message were being deliberately misunderstood.
The four Cabaret Songs, composed between 1937 and 1939 but not published until 1980, were written for Hedli Anderson (later wife of the poet Louis MacNeice), a singer specialising in the performance of high quality ‘light music’. They include a setting the well-known Auden poem Tell me the truth about love, together with Funeral Blues, Johnny and Calypso. Hedli Anderson had taken the part of The Singer in The Ascent of F6, an Auden-Isherwood theatre piece for which Britten had written the incidental music in 1937. These are lively and witty settings, clearly influenced by the popular hit songs of the day (à la Cole Porter) while the onomatopoeic train noises of Calypso clearly point forward to Midnight on the Great Western from the Thomas Hardy cycle Winter Words of 1953.