|Volume 1: The British Isles, with piano|
|Volume 2: France, with piano|
|Volume 3: The British Isles, with piano|
|Volume 5: The British Isles, with piano|
|Volume 6: England, with guitar|
|Eight Folk Song Arrangements, with harp|
|Volume 4: Moore's Irish Melodies, with piano|
Other recommended albums
For those listeners who are not familiar with Britten’s life, the briefest of sketches will set these folksong arrangements in context. Born in Lowestoft in 1913, the son of the local dentist, his was very much a middle class provincial upbringing, with a prep school and public school education. At the age of thirteen he started private composition lessons with the composer Frank Bridge, and at sixteen he went to the Royal College of Music and was soon recognised as a precocious talent. When still nineteen he was the subject of approving internal minuting in the BBC.
By the outbreak of the war he had produced a substantial catalogue of music, though he was not finally established and was probably regarded in many quarters as too clever by half. On 29 April 1939 he sailed for the USA with Peter Pears, not to return until 1942. His Serenade for tenor, horn and strings appeared in 1943 and was recognised immediately, but it was the first performance of his opera Peter Grimes in June 1945 which seemed to ratify his reputation as the leading composer of his generation. Living in Aldeburgh for the rest of his life, and founding the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, he was established as a national figure securely rooted in Suffolk. Choral works such as the cantata St Nicholas (1948) and the Spring Symphony (1949) resulted in his music being taken up by local choral societies. The War Requiem in 1962 attracted an enormous following and celebrations to mark his fiftieth birthday in 1963 were on a national scale. He suffered increasing ill-health in 1972 and, despite an operation to replace a heart valve, died in 1976, not two weeks after his sixty-third birthday.
The majority of the folksong arrangements were completed well before the War Requiem and thus come from that period in his life effectively bounded by his American sojourn, Peter Grimes and the War Requiem. The folksongs really appeared in three groups. The first group consisted of three volumes, published respectively in June 1943, December 1946 and December 1947. Then there was a gap of a dozen years before he turned to Moore’s Irish Melodies for his fourth volume, published in May 1960. Soon the fifth followed in February 1961 and the sixth with guitar (the songs had been played by Julian Bream during the late 1950s) in November 1961.
The final set, for the harpist Osian Ellis, dates from Britten’s last year, by which time he was in a wheelchair. Arranged in the Spring of 1976, these effectively constitute an epilogue to the earlier arrangements, and were not published until 1980.
Britten always composed with particular performers in mind and this is true of the folksong arrangements. At first written for himself and Pears, and briefly also for Sophie Wyss, he would later write for Pears to sing with guitar, inspired by the artistry of Julian Bream, and still later for Osian Ellis.
Collectors have long been fascinated by probably the most elusive of Britten recordings, the ‘Irish Reel’ from his music for the film Village Harvest (or Around the Village Green). This was a documentary directed by Marion Grierson and Evelyn Spice for the Travel and Industrial Development Association in 1936. On 21 October that year we find Britten writing in his diary about the music for the film: ‘all arrangements of folk & traditional tunes (some from Moeran)—all lovely stuff, & I must admit my scoring comes off like hell’. The score includes the tunes Early one morning and The Plough Boy, both featured by Britten in later volumes of folksong settings.
Yet in spite of this stylish handling of folksongs, Britten, in his twenties, never associated himself with what has been called the ‘folksong school’—indeed quite the contrary. Frank Bridge, for one, would certainly have imbued in him some scepticism of that approach to music, and he was quite against Vaughan Williams’s way with folksong, and what he considered to be his amateurishness. Writing to Grace Williams in January 1935 Britten spoke trenchantly of RVW’s Five Mystical Songs: ‘that ‘pi’ and artificial mysticism combined with, what seems to me, technical incompetence, sends me crazy …’ Yet Britten professed himself ‘thrilled’ by a 1934 broadcast of Welsh folksongs arranged by Grace Williams.
Both Britten and Pears long admired Percy Grainger’s treatment of folksongs, and Britten had met E J Moeran soon after the older man had completed his collection of some 150 Norfolk songs. Later Britten remembered how, when Moeran was living near Norwich in the early 1930s, the two became warm friends in spite of their twenty-year age difference. ‘His approach to music was passionately subjective’, Britten later recalled, ‘and his occasional amateur flounderings came in for some rather bossy teenage criticisms from me—which he accepted gratefully and humbly.’ Britten was to take The Shooting of his Dear from Moeran’s published collection.
When, in 1936, Britten and Lennox Berkeley found themselves at the Barcelona Festival of the ISCM, literally at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, they attended a festival of folk dances. ‘Oh—this native music!’ wrote Britten, and it was not long before the two young composers had arranged Catalan dances to produce their jointly composed suite Mont Juic. When Britten went to the USA he produced two further orchestral works that also use folksongs—Canadian Carnival and the Scottish Ballad for two pianos and orchestra. So in 1941 he was certainly a practised hand at dealing with traditional tunes. Later, at the end of his life, Britten’s last orchestral work was the Suite on English Folk Tunes, subtitled ‘A Time There Was’, Op 90, a quotation from Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Before Life and After’ which years before he had set in Winter Words and dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger.
So Britten’s music was framed in folksong, and it is clear it was not the songs about which he had reservations but the chauvinism implied in many composers’ use of national tunes. Writing on leaving the USA in 1942, he remarked: ‘Three years ago it seemed to me that a self-conscious wave of musical nationalism was sweeping this country, and I was sorry to see it … now, more than ever, nationalism is an anachronistic irrelevance.’
It seems likely that it was Peter Pears who first drew Britten’s attention to the possibility of English folksong arrangements as encores and endings to the concerts that he and Britten gave at the end of their time in America. This was when Britten was feeling very homesick, waiting for a passage back to England, and his preoccupations which ultimately led to the composition of Peter Grimes may well have sparked the first folksong settings when he had nothing else in view. In a letter to the conductor Albert Goldberg on 7 October 1941 Britten wrote: ‘I have arranged a few British folksongs which have been a ‘wow’ wherever performed so far!’6 A concert at Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 26 November 1941 ended with a group of four—The Sally Gardens, The Bonny Earl o’ Moray, Little Sir William and Oliver Cromwell, while on 14 December that year the group was The Ash Grove, Twelve Days of Christmas, The Bonny Earl o’ Moray and The Crocodile, the second and fourth of which were never published and are not included here.
While the songs he arranged in America were all for Pears, Britten put together the second volume, of French songs, for Sophie Wyss. The Swiss soprano, sixteen years Britten’s senior, had been long domiciled in England when Britten first knew her. She sang the first performance of Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers in 1936 and later On this Island and, little by little, the Rimbaud songs which eventually became the cycle Les Illuminations. Wyss had had an important role in the establishment of Britten’s reputation, but by the time he returned from the USA he had, in a sense, outgrown her, for Pears had taken on her former role. Britten’s first recording of folksongs looked to the French songs and five of them were recorded by Britten and Wyss in May 1943 but their issue was delayed and Pears and Britten’s first recording, actually recorded the following January, appeared before just two of the French songs were issued in September 1944. The songs were dedicated to Wyss’s children, Arnold and Humphrey Gyde.
On returning to England, Britten and Pears gave recitals for CEMA and War Relief in 1942 and 1943, and the folksongs were pressed into service. Henceforth they became an established part of their repertoire and were among the works that attracted an audience at first potentially hostile on account of their pacifism. The publication of the first volume, together with the appearance of the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, marked 1943 as a turning point in the development of Britten’s public. In fact the folksong arrangements must have had a not insignificant role in establishing Britten with a wider audience. There were orchestral arrangements as well, and four of these had their first performance on 13 December 1942 at the Odeon Cinema, Southgate!
Gradually the songs that were to be published in 1947 in the third volume appeared in programmes, and certainly during 1945 Sweet Polly Oliver, There’s none to soothe, The Plough Boy and The Foggy, Foggy Dew featured at music clubs. In fact The Foggy, Foggy Dew, more than any other, really established Britten’s following with this audience, with its slightly risqué—indeed to some members of its first audiences scandalous—words. It was the perfect encore.
In 1940 Britten had published an article in the American journal Modern Music on ‘England and the Folk-Art Problem’ in which he remarked:
The chief attractions of English folksongs are the sweetness of the melodies, the close connection between words and music, and the quiet uneventful charm of the atmosphere. This uneventfulness however is part of the weakness of the tunes, which seldom have any striking rhythms or memorable melodic features. Like much of the English countryside they creep into the affections rather than take them by storm.
In his first volume Britten offers one tune each from Ireland (The Sally Gardens) and Wales (The Ash Grove), two from Scotland (The Bonny Earl o’ Moray, O can ye sew cushions?) as well as two from Somerset (Little Sir William, The trees they grow so high) and a nursery rhyme from Suffolk (Oliver Cromwell). The Sally Gardens sets words by Yeats. The trees they grow so high would have been familiar in the 1930s from Patrick Hadley’s use of the tune in his ‘symphonic ballad’ The Trees so High. Cecil Sharp prints many variants of the tune. Britten appears to have used the one collected from Harry Richards at Curry Rivel, Somerset, on 28 and 29 July 1904, though Britten’s words are a slight variant again.
Pears has indicated that Britten ‘wanted to recreate these melodies with their texts for concert performance, to make them art-songs … he therefore takes the tune as if he had written it himself and thinks himself back as to how he would turn it into a song’8. Some contemporary commentators were disconcerted by Britten’s treatment of The Beggar’s Opera in 1948, itself a collection of traditional tunes, and it is a similar freshness that is felt here. They have become songs by Britten and his signature is in almost every bar. The piano parts are miracles of invention and imagination, and this is underlined in the orchestral versions. The Sally Gardens is a typical example, remarkably simply realised, the left-hand figure and the telling modulation on the word ‘foolish’ intensifying the lover’s regret. The apparently independent counter-melody in The Ash Grove, the suggestion of pipes and the death march in the funereal The Bonny Earl o’ Moray, all establish the canvas on which the song is played out, but are not always accompaniments in the conventional sense. Percy Grainger wanted his folksong arrangements to be intensely passionate; ‘piercingly’ is one of his markings. Britten follows in that tradition, but uses infinitely sparer and more precisely targeted means.
Britten appears to have conceived his second collection of folksongs for Wyss as a set, unlike most of the others which were collected by degrees. Page numbers appear on the manuscript which suggest Britten was selecting from one specific source, though the source has not been identified. These folksong arrangements were written late in 1942 and published in 1946. The first time that the French folksongs were sung as a set may have been at a National Gallery Concert on 15 March 1943.
John Hullah’s The Song Book was a favourite source for Britten in making these arrangements and the Scottish song There’s none to soothe, with its overtones of Victorian ballad, and The Miller of Dee come from this source. In the latter the conventional sound of the mill-race in the rushing accompaniment is made striking by the constant opposition of E flat against the E natural of the vocal line.
O Waly, Waly is a Somerset folksong collected by Cecil Sharp, though Britten’s version does not exactly equate with the three versions published by Sharp and the words appear to be a conflation of two of them. The song is found in several earlier printed sources. Britten’s accompaniment contrasts the lover’s predicament with the inexorable impersonality of the sea.
Britten and Pears used to programme four of these arrangements under the title Four Old English Characters— Sally in our Alley, The Plough Boy, Dibdin’s Tom Bowling (not collected in the folksong sets) and The Lincolnshire Poacher.
They appear to date from 1957 and 1958. Two (The Minstrel Boy and How sweet the answer) were performed at the Kammermusiksaal, Graz, by Pears and Britten on 24 April 1957, yet when a group of five were sung at a Victoria and Albert Museum Gallery Chamber Concert on 26 January 1958 they were announced as a ‘first performance’. They were later sung at Cecil Sharp House to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the Folk Song Society.
The economy of means needed by Britten to make his point in the earlier folksong arrangements was remarkable. In the later sets his economy of gesture is even more striking, reflecting Britten’s world in the late 1950s. As Hugh Wood once remarked about them, ‘a cold wind is blowing over the garden’.
The guitar accompaniments are totally idiomatically conceived for the instrument, from the intoxicating dancing guitar in Sailor-boy to the merest whisper of figuration so evocative in Master Kilby. In The Shooting of his Dear all memories of Moeran’s harmonisation are instantly banished by the guitar’s punchy chords and the eerie murmuring of the guitar demi-semi-quavers in the final verse.
At a recital at the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival, on 17 June, Pears and Julian Bream rounded off a recital which included the first performance of Britten’s Songs from the Chinese with three of these: The Shooting of his Dear, Master Kilby and The Soldier and the Sailor. The songs were published in 1961.
Eight Folk Song Arrangements
Lemady was sung by Robert Beadle at Stoup Brow, Whitby, Yorkshire, in September 1911, the music noted by Clive Carey, the words by Mary Neal. This was published in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society from 1899 and the source of a vast number of folksongs. Bonny at Morn is a Northumbrian tune taken from W G Whittaker’s North Countrie Ballads, Songs and Pipe Tunes who in turn took it from Northumbrian Minstrelsie published in 1885.
I was lonely and forlorn sets English words by Osian Ellis to the traditional Welsh tune ‘Bugeilio’r Gwenith Minstrelsie’ which was collected by Maria Jane Williams of Aberpergwm and published in Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg. Still in Wales, the well-known tune David of the White Rock is taken from the mid-Victorian collection by the proponent of school singing, John Hullah, to whose The Song Book Britten had had recourse in earlier settings. The melody is by David Owen (1709–1739) published in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards in 1784. To the Welsh words by Ceiriog, Osian Ellis has added a second verse. The English words come from Hullah.
The False Knight upon the road is another song from the Appalachians, sung by Mrs T G Coates at Flag Pond, Tennessee, on 1 September 1916, and published in Sharp’s collection cited above. Finally, Bird Scarer’s Song is another from Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and had been collected by Cecil Sharp (No 266B in Sharp’s Collection) from the singing of Mr John Parnell at East Harptree, Somerset, on 16 April 1904.
Viewed as a whole, Britten’s folksong arrangements, covering as they do not only all the countries of the British Isles but also France, are remarkable as much for their renewal of tradition as for the personality of their arranger. Indeed, as in the case of Percy Grainger’s arrangements, for many of them ‘composer’ might be a better word.
Lewis Foreman © 1994