The composition of the song cycle On This Island yielded eight Auden settings in total, only five of which were selected when the final form of the work was reached. This set was originally designated ‘Vol.1’ and it thus 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 by Boosey & Hawkes 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.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Britten-Pears Library