Moderato con molto moto [7'55]
This recording brings together a remarkably diverse number of works from virtually the entire span of Britten's mature composing career, beginning in 1930 with a movement from an early Wind Sextet and extending as far as his last major vocal composition, Phaedra, written over forty-five years later. Two works receive their first recording.
Phaedra represents the distillation of a lifetime's expertise in operatic composition and remains one of the most dramatic cantatas for soprano in the repertoire: the story of Phaedra's incestuous infatuation with her step-son Hippolytus and her subsequent suicide is presented with chilling effect. The famous Lachrymae is here performed in the arrangement for solo viola and string orchestra made by Britten in the last year of his life.
The Sinfonietta and the movement for wind sextet are both much earlier works and yet, despite their 'student' status, are remarkably assured examples of Britten's later style. The Sword in the Stone (a BBC commission for incidental music to T H White's novel) has elements of Wagnerian pastiche and the Night Mail End Sequence, with W H Auden's famous poem (This is the night mail crossing the border, / Bringing the cheque and the postal order …), was composed for the most famous of all 1930s documentary films.
Other recommended albums
The present recording brings together a remarkably diverse number of works from virtually the entire span of Britten’s mature composing career, beginning in 1930 with a movement from an early wind sextet and extending as far as his last major vocal composition, Phaedra, written over forty-five years later.
Phaedra, Britten’s cantata for solo voice and small orchestra, was written in the summer of 1975 as a tribute to Janet Baker, who had established herself as a consummate Britten interpreter with the English Opera Group and who was a regular and much-loved participant at Aldeburgh Festivals. It was following a highly successful performance of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été by Dame Janet at the 1975 Festival that Britten told her of his intention to write a piece for her. The consequences of his heart surgery two years earlier meant that Britten found the process of composing physically difficult and for a time psychologically traumatic. A full-scale stage work was absolutely out of the question; what Britten did, instead, was to distil a lifetime’s operatic expertise into a fifteen-minute solo cantata, modelled after the Italian cantatas of Handel.
Taking his cue from Handel, Britten restricted the orchestra to strings; but he added percussion, and incorporated a ‘continuo’ of solo cello and harpsichord. The structure of the work was also articulated in an eighteenth-century manner as a sequence of recitatives and arias. The text is drawn from Robert Lowell’s verse translation of Racine’s Phèdre. Britten had met Lowell in New York in 1969, and the American poet travelled to Snape to attend the triumphant first performance of Phaedra in June 1976 at the Aldeburgh Festival of that year, the last that Britten was to attend.
Like so many of Britten’s operatic characters, Phaedra may be seen as an outcast at odds with the society in which she finds herself. The Apollonian A major of the work’s opening (to be compared with Death in Venice, 1973), ‘In May, in brilliant Athens’, marks from the outset the restrained clarity of the cantata’s idiom. As ‘Medea’s poison’ courses through Phaedra’s veins, so Britten’s orchestral texture grows in dynamics and textural richness (divided strings throughout), gradually rising – like the poison in her body – from lower to upper strings. It is only by way of her death, by this annihilating ascension, that Phaedra finally achieves the ‘purity’ signified by a Brittenesque C major that has eluded her in life.
While working on Billy Budd in the first half of 1950 Britten broke off from the opera to compose Lachrymae, his only mature piece for viola and piano, for the distinguished viola player William Primrose whom he had met the previous year when touring the United States. Primrose gave the first performance at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival with the composer at the piano. Twenty-five years later, in the last year of his life, Britten orchestrated the piano part for strings to create a concertante piece, Op 48a, for Cecil Aronowitz, another distinguished violist and close professional colleague.
Lachrymae is a series of variations on the first phrase of Dowland’s song ‘If my complaints could passions move’. Following a Lento introduction in which the song is quoted in the bass of the piano part, a sequence of contrasting ‘reflections’ ensues. In the sixth, Appassionato, Britten quotes from another Dowland song, ‘Flow my tears’. The last section returns by means of a slow crescendo to Dowland’s original melody and harmony, when it is heard complete for the first time. Britten’s exploration of the Dowland material is extremely thorough, and it generates not only the principal melodic material but the harmonic vocabulary as well. Such is its organic resourcefulness that the techniques used in Lachrymae are reminiscent of the exhaustive musical derivations to be found in the Church Parables of the subsequent decade.
It was Erwin Stein who first noted the influence of Schoenberg – and in particular his first Chamber Symphony – on Britten’s three-movement Sinfonietta, written during June and July 1932 when Britten was studying composition under John Ireland at the Royal College of Music, London. The hostility of the College towards the radically new ideas of the Second Viennese School was a determining factor in preventing Britten from studying with Berg in 1934. Such music did not interest most of the leading teachers at the College – Ireland and Vaughan Williams among them; but it fascinated Britten’s first composition teacher and principal guiding mentor, Frank Bridge, whose later works bear a remarkable resemblance to mainstream atonal compositions and who surely encouraged his pupil to explore wider horizons.
The Sinfonietta is a remarkably assured example of Britten’s earlier compositions. The instrumentation belies at once his skill in crafting notes which sound as if they were always intended for that particular instrument; there is never any sense of this music feeling ‘scored’ from some kind of piano reduction. The opening bars unfold five interrelated motifs which provide the basis of the material to be heard in all three movements. The intervallic shapes delineated by these motivic units are played out against an important major-seventh pedal point (B flat–A) which itself relates back to the motifs. Schoenberg’s influence can be detected in the way the melodic and harmonic parameters cross-refer.
The sonata form of the first movement yields to an unusual set of variations, marked andante, in the second movement. Their growth from a rather loose organization of the motivic elements, through some impressive development to a moving climax and a recapitulation, is not what one might expect. The term ‘variations’ can be seen to apply to Britten’s persistent reappraisal of the original material. The finale employs once again the intervallic structure of the original motivic set heard at the beginning of the Poco presto ed agitato. Britten’s choice of the Tarantella foreshadows his later ‘dances of death’ in such works as Our Hunting Fathers (1936) or Sinfonia da Requiem (1940).
In 1939 the BBC commissioned Britten to write an extensive score of incidental music for a dramatic adaptation of T H White’s highly successful Arthurian novel, The Sword in the Stone, which 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 prevalent throughout much of the score, a technique employed in response to the text’s parodic relationship to its Arthurian forebears of Malory and Tennyson. The most interesting target for parodic treatment in the score is the music of Wagner, in particular motifs from the ‘Ring’. Wagner was a favourite composer in Britten’s youth and the influence of Tristan, for example, can be detected in Britten’s precocious Quatre chansons françaises (1928). In The Sword in the Stone music 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 (note also how Merlyn’s academic credentials are laid out musically in the contrapuntal writing); 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 favour of a medley of musical birds compiled from various sources including Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Delius.
Britten also incorporates some sophisticated, albeit 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 semiquaver tune on piccolo and clarinet in the innocent key of C major. Kay’s theme, however, could not be more sharply contrasted: its march-like, almost pompous quality in the regal key of A flat reflects his tremendous self-importance, as does the use of brass rather than the chirpy woodwind.
The Moderato con molto moto for wind sextet (a bass clarinet joins the normal complement of the wind quintet) is the first of two extant movements of an apparently unfinished wind sextet composed between May and August 1930. The first movement was written during Britten’s last term at Gresham’s School, Holt, in Norfolk, and the second movement (dated 7 August) was completed a little over a month before he entered the Royal College of Music where he was to study with John Ireland (composition) and Arthur Benjamin (piano). The sextet is unusual in Britten’s output in that it is one of the few examples of his writing concerted wind music. (The only other substantial example is Russian Funeral  for brass and percussion.)
It remains unclear what might have sparked off the sixteen-year-old composer’s imagination to attempt such a work: perhaps it was quite simply that a wind sextet was something he had never before attempted. It is, however, possible that Janácek’s Mládí (‘Youth’), scored for identical forces, might have acted as a model. It had been first heard in England in 1926 and Britten, a rapacious reader of scores and an enthusiastic listener to the wireless, may well have come across the piece and been stimulated by its programmatic shape and individual voice. The musical language of Britten’s sextet, however, owes more to the influence of Schoenberg and his school, a potent force on the youthful Britten’s omnivorous ears.
On leaving the College, Britten was determined at all costs to make his living as a professional composer. To this end he began to write incidental music for the GPO Film Unit (whose reputation for experimentation was second to none), as well as for small theatre companies such as the Group and Left Theatres, and for BBC radio. In 1936 Britten and the poet W H Auden, also briefly employed at the Film Unit, collaborated on Night Mail, probably the most celebrated of all 1930s documentary films. It tells the story of the special postal express train collecting, sorting and delivering mail as it travels overnight from London to Glasgow. One of Britten’s and Auden’s most striking contributions to the film comes in the famous end sequence, with its remarkable synthesis of potent visual images, Auden’s text (a kind of patter spoken in strict rhythm with the music) and Britten’s brilliantly conceived score.
Philip Reed © 1996