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Sword in the Stone, The

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Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten (comp. Matthews and Knussen)

General Info

Year: 1939
Duration: c. 10:00
Difficulty: (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: Faber Music
Cost: Score and Parts - Rental   |   Score Only - $£10.99


1. Introduction and Boys Tune
2. Merlyn's Tune and Tree Music
3. Merlyn's Spell and Witch Tune
4. Bird Music - 1:10
5. Lullaby - 1:35
6. Water Theme and End Music - 2:35


Full Score
B-flat Soprano Clarinet
B-flat Trumpet
Percussion, including:

  • Bass Drum
  • Snare Drum
  • Glockenspiel
  • Gong
  • Hi-Hat
  • Suspended Cymbal
  • Tenor Drum
  • Woodblock


None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

In the spring of 1939 Benjamin Britten composed the incidental music for a BBC radio Children’s Hour six-part dramatization of T. H. White’s Arthurian story, The Sword in the Stone. He provided fifteen numbers: Introduction, Boys’ Tunes, Merlyn’s Tune, Merlyn’s Spell, Lullaby, Water Theme, Jousting Music, Jousting Song, Bird Music, Bird’s Song I, Bird’s Song II, Witch Tune, Witch’s Song, Tree Music, and End Music. Oliver Knussen compiled this suite for a performance at the 1983 Aldeburgh Festival, using ten of the numbers with a minimum of editorial change, but linking them to form separate movements.

The Sword in the Stone concerns Arthur’s boyhood, when he was known as “Wart,” his friendship with Kay (Wart’s foster brother), his education under Merlyn’s guidance, and the eventual revelation that he is, in fact, King Arthur.

Britten’s use of parody is present throughout the score, employed in response to the text’s parodic relationship to its Arthurian forebears of Malory and Tennyson. Often treated in this way are motifs from Wagner’s Ring cycle. In The Sword in the Stone, the Wagnerian references are thinly veiled: Merlyn’s Tune echoes the sound of the Rheingold prelude, suggested by the similar primordial mood of the subjects; in the same number Britten appropriately includes Wagner’s “sword” motif in the correct key (C major), played by the correct instrument (trumpet); and in the End Music a brief snatch of the “freedom” motif from Act I of Siegfried can be detected. Wagner is also to be found in the witty Bird Music in which the composer eschews imitating real bird calls in favor of a medley of musical birds compiled from various sources including Beethoven, Strauss, and Delius.

Britten also incorporates sophisticated, small-scale musico-dramatic symbolism in the score. In Boys’ Tunes, for example, the open-minded Wart, unaware of his true identity, is represented by a lively sixteenth tune on piccolo and clarinet in the innocent key of C major. Kay’s theme, however, could not be more sharply contrasted: its marching pompous quality in the regal key of A-flat reflects his self-importance, as does the use of brass rather than the more playful woodwind.

- Program Note by Luke Camarillo for the New England Conservatory concert program, 14 April 2021

The incidental music to the BBC radio serialization of T.H. White's book was composed in May 1939, soon after Britten's arrival in Canada, and was broadcast in six episodes during June and July 1939. The first performance was given June 14, 1983, by the Aldeburgh Festival Chamber Ensemble, Oliver Knussen.

-Program Note from publisher

Commercial Discography

State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


To submit a performance please join The Wind Repertory Project

  • New England Conservatory (Boston, Mass.) Symphonic Winds (Luke Camarillo, conductor) - 28 April 2021
  • New England Conservatory (Boston, Mass.) Wind Ensemble (Luke Camarillo, conductor) - 23 February 2021 and 14 April 2021
  • The Ohio State University (Columbus) Wind Symphony (Russell Mikkelson, conductor) - 26 March 2015 (2015 CBDNA National Conference, Nashville)
  • Aldeburgh Festival Chamber Ensemble (Oliver Knussen, conductor) - 14 June 1983 *Premiere Performance*

Works for Winds by This Composer


  • Britten, B.; Matthew, C.; Knussen, O.; White, T. (1939). The Sword in the Stone: Concert Suite for Chamber Ensemble [score]. Faber Music: London.