It was while Britten was resident in the United States in the early 1940s that he began to make his first arrangements of traditional folksongs. It was a way in which the then homesick composer could reconnect with his English roots (which would eventually result in his return home in 1942) while also, more pragmatically, providing some ‘popular’ material for his numerous recitals with Peter Pears. So successful and useful did the first collection prove to be that Britten went on to make a further six volumes of arrangements, including French, Scottish and Irish as well as English folksongs, the last (for tenor and harp) dating from the very last year of his life. They became regular features of Britten and Pears’ recital programmes and continue to be widely performed today.
Native folksong had been the bedrock of the English pastoral style (exemplified by, say, Vaughan Williams) but Britten’s arrangements are far removed from the sentimentality often associated with that tradition. Furthermore, because he was not an active folksong ‘collector’ (compared to Bartók or Grainger, for instance), his imagination was not restricted by hidebound notions of ‘authenticity’. In Canadian Carnival (1939) and Scottish Ballad (1941), Britten had experimented with using folksongs as thematic material but deliberately lending them an unconventional, even quirky treatment that runs contrary to one’s expectations. Similarly, in his folksong arrangements proper, Britten is not afraid to put his own personal stamp on what are sometimes very familiar tunes (‘Early one morning’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, for example), not to be wilfully abstruse but rather to reveal what he saw as previously untapped potentialities in the melodies themselves.
Britten’s folksong arrangements fall into eight separate volumes: five for voice and piano (an additional collection comprising previously unpublished settings was issued as Tom Bowling and Other Song Arrangements in 2001), plus one each with guitar and harp. An edition of the complete folksong arrangements (with those for guitar and harp appropriately transcribed for piano) was published for the first time in 2007.