On Moonlit Heath

Year of composition
A E Housman
Difficult (Grades 7+)
7 minutes
Modern classical music
Voice + keyboard
Instrumental parts
Not available

A. E. Housman’s set of poems entitled “A Shropshire Lad” first appeared almost 120 years ago and contains some of the most beautiful lines in the English language. The cycle evokes an imagined, pastoral landscape and the poems are frequently shot through with regret at the transience of life and of beauty. The verse patterns are simple and echo the regular rhythms of common folksongs.

This setting of “On moonlit heath” had its first performance at a concert in London in April 2015, with Felicity Hayward (soprano) and Catherine Herriott on the piano. With the formal abolition of capital punishment in Britain half a century earlier, the lyrics carry a special poignancy. We no longer hear of the tortuous appeals, the dreaded decisions and the prisoner’s last hours before execution. The horrifying prospect of an unjust but irreversible verdict no longer haunts us as it once did. Against this, Housman’s poetry recalls times we have perhaps forgotten when the judicial killing of fellow humans was commonplace. The attached recording is taken from that concert, with grateful thanks to Felicity and Catherine.

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank The sheep beside me graze; And yon the gallows used to clank Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep The flocks by moonlight there, * And high amongst the glimmering sheep The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail: The whistles blow forlorn, And trains all night groan on the rail To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night, Or wakes, as may betide, A better lad, if things went right, Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman's noose The morning clocks will ring A neck God made for other use Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap, And dead on air will stand Heels that held up as straight a chap As treads upon the land.

So here I'll watch the night and wait To see the morning shine, When he will hear the stroke of eight And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep As lads' I did not know, That shepherded the moonlit sheep A hundred years ago.

  • Hanging in chains was called ‘keeping sheep by moonlight’

A. E. Housman (1859–1936) from “A Shropshire Lad” published 1896

Which method of viewing music should I use?

Score Exchange has two methods to display previews of music: seView which uses regular html and javascipt and the Scorch plug-in from Avid which needs to be downloaded and installed onto your computer. Both have advantages and disadvantages:


seView, is the most compatible option. You should be able to view music on all modern web browsers including most mobile devices. Even if your device does not support javascript you should still be able to preview at least page one of the music.

You do not need to install any additional software to use seView.


Scorch is a free plug-in from Avid for displaying and printing music. It can also play the music that you're seeing. As modern web browsers are updated, Scorch is no longer compatible with many browsers. Scorch has never been compatible with mobile devices and some web browsers on Mac computers.

If your web browser does not install Scorch automatically, you can click here to download and install scorch manually.

cloud scorch goes here

Licensing for this music

This score was published on Score Exchange by Cedric Peachey. When you buy it, you are granted a license that includes the following:

Sharing the file you download
When you buy the score - make multiple copies
When you buy parts - make multiple copies

For anything not permitted by the above licence then you should contact the publisher first to obtain permission.

In order to submit this score to ScoreExchange.com Cedric Peachey has declared that they own the copyright to this work in its entirety or that they have been granted permission from the copyright holder to use their work. If you believe that this score should be not available here because it infringes your or someone elses copyright, please report this score using the copyright abuse form.