From our 2013 “Britten in Song” concert at St. Mark’s in Glendale, CA, here is a video performance by tenor Jonathan Mack of “The Salley Gardens,” one of Britten’s most popular folk song settings. Jonathan’s performance perfectly captures the intimacy of the song, and his vocalism recalls (and surpasses) the classic recording by Peter Pears. Kristof Van Grysperre is at the piano. Read on for a few clues to enhance your enjoyment!
Background. Down by the Salley Gardens (Irish: Gort na Saileán) is a poem by William Butler Yeats, first published in 1889. It was based on the words of an older folk song, to which Yeats added new words of his own. The tune Britten used for his 1943 setting was “The Moorlough Shore,” which Irish composer Herbert Hughes had also used for his classic 1909 setting of the Yeats poem.
Some clues. The “Salley Gardens” may have been on the banks of the river at Ballysadare near Sligo. “Salley” or “sally” is a form of the Standard English word “sallow”, i.e., a tree of the genus Salix. It is close in sound to the Irish word saileach, meaning willow.
- Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.
- In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.