These three songs were originally composed when Britten was a young boy. In 1968, while in the process of reviving his early compositions Tit for Tat and the Five Walztes [sic] for piano, Britten prepared them for publication, but it was not until 1985 that they finally appeared in print. Beware!, a setting of Longfellow, was written in 1922 when Britten was not even ten years old and was apparently a firm favourite with his family; O that I had ne’er been married, a setting of Robert Burns in Scots dialect, was composed at around the same time. The third song, Epitaph, a setting of the first verse of Herbert Asquith’s poem ‘The Volunteer’, was composed slightly later, in 1926. As one might expect, these songs show little evidence of Britten’s mature style, but they are nonetheless characterful and attractive with a youthful directness of expression that is both charming and endearing.
During the late 1960s, Britten began to exhume some of the works he had written during his remarkably precocious and prolific childhood (a process that would also result in his reviving the so-called Five Walztes [sic] for piano a year later and the String Quartet in D in 1974). Originally composed between 1928 and 1931, these five settings of Walter de la Mare were not originally written as an integrated cycle: it was only when Britten prepared them for publication in the spring of 1968 (effecting some minor retouchings) that he assembled them into a collection he entitled Tit for Tat and dedicated to Richard de la Mare, son of the poet and, at the time, chairman of Britten’s publishers Faber Music.
Although in his preface to the published score, Britten wrote “I hold no claims whatever for the songs’ importance or originality”, these songs are remarkable for the assurance of their musical language and sensitivity to word-setting, even if the composer’s full artistic personality is still some way round the corner.
Furthermore, the songs foreshadow various themes and preoccupations which would manifest themselves in many a later Britten work, not least in the final song, Tit for Tat, which in its condemnation of the uncaring poacher Tom Noddy’s ensnaring of helpless animals touches on a subject which Britten would return to on a larger scale in his orchestral song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers composed some six years later.