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Fourteen of the songs on this major release are recorded for the first time. The inspiration for the Holy Sonnets was a harrowing trip paid by Britten and Yehudi Menuhin to Belsen at the end of the war, while the songs from the collection ‘The Red Cockatoo and other songs’ respond to a wide variety of more homely influences.
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne were completed on 19 August 1945, a few weeks after Britten’s return from Germany where he and Yehudi Menuhin had toured at the end of July. On 27 July they visited Belsen to give a pair of concerts to the liberated survivors; it was a harrowing experience and one which undoubtedly coloured the sequence of nine settings of Donne’s profound religious meditations, all of which are concerned with the related themes of death and repentance. Although the cycle was composed in the emotional aftermath of the visit, Britten had been reading Donne’s poetry at least two years earlier: Pears had written to Elizabeth Mayer in February 1943, ‘What have you been reading lately? Ben and I have been re-reading Donne lately—those wonderful holy sonnets, and especially the Hymn to God the Father’. But even while still living in the United States, Britten had made an incomplete sketch for voice and piano of Donne’s ‘Stay, O Sweet, and do not rise’, which probably dates from 1941.
When he chose to set Donne in the wake of the enormous success of Peter Grimes in 1945, Britten was continuing the remarkable sequence of works which had commenced two years earlier with the Serenade, Op 31, in which the setting of his native language is made with an assurance that is derived from a complete understanding of the subtleties of Purcell’s attitude to prosody, an appreciation heightened by Britten’s practice of making realizations of Purcell’s vocal music for himself and Pears. While Purcell’s ‘Divine Hymns’ are undoubtedly the strongest influence on the Donne settings (Pears and Britten gave the first performance of the cycle in the context of a Purcell anniversary concert at the Wigmore Hall in November 1945), the close relationship between vocal line and accompaniment also suggests an understanding of Wolf’s fluent techniques, while Britten’s habit of hitting upon a binding ur-motif for a song is redolent of his beloved Schubert.
The opening pair of sonnets articulates a conflict between B minor and C minor which is explored through the tonal scheme of the entire sequence of nine settings, five of which are centred on B (and its diatonic relatives) and four on C (and its relatives). Whereas Nos 6 (‘Since she whom I loved’) and 7 (‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’) emphasize the tension between these two tonal circuits at its most acute, in the final pair of sonnets Britten shows how such opposition can be integrated. Both ‘Oh my blacke Soule!’ (No 1) and ‘Batter my heart’ (No 2) respond to Donne’s striking verbal patterns with hammering rhythms in the accompaniment, a death knell in No 1 and a manic moto perpetuo in No 2. The basic semitonal relationship of the cycle is spelled out in the falling seconds which characterize No 3 (‘O might those sighes and teares’). No 4 (‘Oh, to vex me’) is another moto perpetuo, with an expressive chromatic melisma at ‘when I shake with feare’. ‘What if this present’ (No 5) has an affinity with the contrapuntal invention of the ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge’ from the Serenade, particularly in its incorporation of Baroque-inspired ornamentation. The lyrical warmth of ‘Since she whom I loved’ (No 6), notable for its consonant harmonies, is redolent of ‘Being Beauteous’ or ‘Départ’ from Les Illuminations, while the fanfare textures of the succeeding sonnet, ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’, in a triumphant D major, recall the Purcellian / Handelian inspiration from which On this Island, Op 11, sets out. ‘Thou hast made me’ (No 8) is a restless, agitated setting (E flat minor), in complete contrast to the valedictory ‘Death, be not proud’. The latter (in B major) is constructed over a five-bar ground bass, a direct inspiration from Purcell, in which the piano, as in the last of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo of 1940, plays the dominant role. It is a song that strikes a finely judged balance between the simple and the complex.
In the years since Britten’s death in 1976, a number of unpublished and unperformed songs have come to light. Nearly all of these are connected with specific song-cycles (with piano, or orchestra) and were rejected by the composer in the final stages of composition. For example, although Britten’s Hardy cycle, Winter Words, Op 52, comprises eight masterly songs, he did in fact compose two further settings, subsequently rejected—‘The Children and Sir Nameless’ and ‘If it’s ever Spring again’—while annotations in Britten’s volume of Hardy’s verse suggest that at an earlier stage in the work’s genesis the composer had considered a large number of possible texts. This process of refinement is typical of, and crucial to, the working methods of Britten’s compositional maturity. The songs presented on the remainder of the present recording, however, are not derived from pre-existing cycles but are isolated examples of Britten’s song-writing, or, in two cases, songs from potential cycles that never achieved fulfilment, or examples from Britten’s substantial corpus of incidental music for the theatre.
Evening, Morning, Night
The trio of songs ‘Evening, Morning, Night’, for voice and harp or piano, is taken from incidental music for Ronald Duncan’s masque and anti-masque This Way to the Tomb, first performed on 11 October 1945 at the Mercury Theatre, London, by the Pilgrim Players directed by E Martin Browne. Britten’s score included solo songs, an a cappella chorus, and a boogie-woogie for voices, piano duet and percussion. The play’s subject was the Temptation of the St Antony, which was treated seriously in the masque and subsequently parodied in the anti-masque. Robert Speaight took the role of Father Antony, and Eric Shilling played one of three noviciates, the poet Julian, whose three songs appeared in the course of the masque.
Duncan had known Britten since the mid-1930s when they collaborated on a Pacifist March (1937) for the Peace Pledge Union. In 1944 he invited the composer to write the incidental music for his new play, provisionally entitled ‘The Tomb of St Antony’, of which only the masque was at that time finished. Although Britten was already fully immersed in the composition of Peter Grimes, he agreed to Duncan’s request, writing to the playwright on 7 April 1944 from The Old Mill, Snape:
What a one you are! Here I am up to my eyes in opera and spiritual crises & you expect me to drop everything and write you two songs [‘Evening’ and ‘Morning’]. Still, maybe I’ll have a shot (but no promises), if you’d be so gracious as to let me know what kind of background, accompaniment, there’ll be—full orch.? barrel-organ?? What kind of voice, high, low?—it makes a difference, you know. But, seriously I wish you’d give me more notice—because I’ve been turning everything down for the last six months, BBC, Films (including Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra, which I admit gave me pleasure to do!)
By November that year Duncan had completed his anti-masque and Britten provided further incidental music, including Julian’s final song, ‘Night’. ‘Evening’ is another fine example of Britten’s haunting nocturnal music, a setting characterized by a major/minor mode ambivalence. ‘Morning’, in a bright G major, is a relatively straightforward song. ‘Night’, as befits a song composed in the same month as the celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, is cast over a four-bar ground bass in B minor which turns to the major on its fifth appearance at ‘Night is no more than my love who lies / She dreams of a dream lives, then dies’, except for the final minor chord (on ‘dies’).
W H Auden settings
Britten first encountered the poet Wystan Auden in July 1935 when both men were working for the GPO Film Unit, writing words and music for documentary films. Coal Face (1935), in which Britten set Auden’s lyric ‘O lurcher-loving collier, black as night’, was soon to be followed by the aborted Negroes (although it was later made in a revised format) and Night Mail (1936), the most celebrated of all the GPO documentaries from the 1930s. But it was not only in the film studio that these two prodigiously gifted youthful creators were to collaborate: they were to work together in the theatre (The Ascent of F6) and at the BBC (Hadrian’s Wall), and in the same year that Night Mail scored such a hit with cinema-goers, Auden compiled the text for Britten’s virtuoso orchestral song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers, Op 8.
A little over a month after the premiere of Our Hunting Fathers Britten purchased a copy of Auden’s new collection entitled—against the poet’s wishes—Look, Stranger! (for the American edition Auden changed the title to that which he preferred—On this Island). Britten noted in his diary entry for 3 November that the volume ‘has some splendid things in it. He has written two for me included in it. The poems Auden dedicated to Britten were Night covers up the rigid land and ‘Underneath the abject willow’, the latter of which Britten immediately set on 17/18 November as the second of his Two Ballads for two voices and piano. (The other ballad was ‘Mother Comfort’, to words by Montagu Slater, future librettist of Peter Grimes.) It was not until the following May, however, that Britten returned to Look, Stranger! when he set ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’ (27 May), while earlier that month he had composed his beautiful ‘Nocturne’, a setting of Auden’s ‘Now through night’s caressing grip’ from The Dog Beneath the Skin. Both these songs were destined for Britten’s cycle of five Auden settings, On this Island, Op 11, first performed by Sophie Wyss (soprano) and the composer at a BBC contemporary music concert on 19 November 1937; the other songs from the cycle—‘Let the florid music praise’, ‘Seascape’, and the cabaret-like ‘As it is plenty’—were all composed in October. On this Island was published by Boosey & Hawkes (Winthrop Rodgers edition) in 1938 as ‘Vol 1’, an indication that it was Britten’s intention to follow these Auden songs with a second collection.
To this purpose there are three further Auden settings belonging to 1937, two of which are included in the present recording: the satirical To lie flat on the back with the knees flexed (26 October); and Night covers up the rigid land (27 October). While ‘Night covers up the rigid land’ only survives in draft form in Britten’s customary pencil (the manuscript was put to service as the wrapper for the draft of On this Island), the composer made a fair copy of ‘To lie flat on the back’ for Sophie Wyss and she may well have performed it. The first official performance of ‘To lie flat on the back’ was given by Neil Mackie (tenor) and John Blakely (piano) on 23 April 1985 as part of a BBC broadcast recital. ‘Night covers up the rigid land’, a beautiful nocturne, was first heard at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 22 November 1985, performed by Patricia Rozario and Graham Johnson.
A further Auden setting from Look, Stranger! dates from January 1938, when Britten composed Fish in the Unruffled Lakes while staying at Peasenhall in Suffolk. This song, unlike the others intended for the projected second volume of Auden settings, was approved for release by the composer and first published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1947. Although no information has emerged concerning its premiere, it was a song that Pears and Britten often included in their many recitals together.
The Red Cockatoo & other songs
Probably the earliest song from the collection published under the title The Red Cockatoo & other songs (Faber Music, 1994) is A Poison Tree, Britten’s first setting of a poem by William Blake, a poet to whom the composer was to return many times in future years (for example, ‘Elegy’ in the Serenade). It was composed in London on 2 March 1935, when Britten recorded in his diary, ‘Write a song (A Poison Tree of W Blake) in morning—but it’s not much good—more an exercise than anything. This occupies me all the morning—a short walk before lunch’. It is presumably because of Britten’s view of the song that it remained unpublished and unperformed in his lifetime; it received its first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 22 November 1986, by Henry Herford and Ian Brown. Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ was a poem to which Britten returned exactly thirteen years later when composing his final (and major) Blake settings, the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74, for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Like the later setting, the 1935 ‘Poison Tree’ was written for the baritone voice.
When you’re feeling like expressing your affection (1935/6) may be linked to a vague memory of the late Hedli Anderson’s, the singer for whom Britten and Auden composed their cabaret songs in 1937–1939. In an 1980 interview she recalled her first meeting with Britten: ‘… as far as I can remember, I think it was to do with a film, Auden, GPO, I think … and I was asked to sing a song that Benjamin had written for them and that’s how I met him … It was something very small I had to do and films … were very strange to me.’ No direct evidence can be found to link the recollection with the song, but it seems possible that this is the piece that Anderson remembered. Although Britten’s manuscript gives no indication of authorship and no manuscript in Auden’s hand exists, the Auden scholar Edward Mendelson believes Auden to be a likely author of the song’s witty text. Moreover, the chronology of Anderson’s memory coincides with Auden’s six-months’ residency at John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit and Britten’s employment there (1935/6). The catchy character of the song, marked ‘Vivace’, in F, with harmony coloured by an unstable major/minor third, is not unlike the later specifically designated cabaret songs known to be from the Britten-Auden stable, even if ‘When you’re feeling’ is much less sophisticated or pungent than, say, ‘O tell me the truth about love’ or ‘Funeral Blues’. The song amusingly extols the virtues of the public telephone service and would probably have been intended for one of Grierson’s many publicity films. Indeed, Professor Mendelson is surely correct in suggesting that the song might have belonged to a sketch for a film ‘not unlike the brief GPO publicity film The Fairy of the Phone’. The latter, directed in 1936 by William Coldstream with music by Walter Leigh, included a dozen female telephone operators singing at their switchboards: ‘Just telephone, and we will put you through.’ The first performance of ‘When you’re feeling like expressing your affection’ was given by Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown on 15 June 1992, at Blythburgh Church, Suffolk, as part if the forty-fifth Aldeburgh Festival.
Britten’s setting of Peter Burra’s poem Not even summer yet, was composed on 9 October 1937 (on the same date Britten also set Auden’s ‘As it is plenty’) in response to a request from Julie Behrend; Britten lunched with her on 28 July that year, noting in his diary that she ‘has written me appealing & sentimental letters about setting a charming little poem of Peter Burra’s’. Britten had first met Burra (1909–1937)—who had been at Lancing College with Peter Pears—in Barcelona at the 1936 ISCM Festival, about which Burra wrote as a music critic for The Times. Burra was a most gifted and perceptive writer not only on music, but on art and literature also. While at Oxford he edited a quarterly undergraduate periodical, Farrago, in which ‘Not even summer yet’ appeared in December 1930 under the title ‘For a Song’ and with an attribution to ‘James Salkeld’, Burra’s middle names; and his essay ‘The Novels of E M Forster’ (1934) was widely admired, no less so than by Forster himself.
It was Burra’s tragic early death in an aeroplane accident in April 1937 that brought Britten and Pears into a closer relationship. Although Britten and Pears knew each other slightly at this period, it was only while sorting out Burra’s effects that their relationship blossomed. Britten wrote in his diary on the day of Burra’s death (27 April):
Go to bed feeling desperate as I’ve just heard that dear old Peter Burra has been killed in an Air smash near Reading—flying with one of his ‘tough’ friends. He was a darling of the 1st rank, & and in the short year & a bit that I’ve known him he has been very close & dear to me. A first rate brain, that was at the moment in great difficulties—tho’ this is far too terrible a solution for them. Nothing has leaked out yet how it happened. This is a bloody world, & nothing one can do can stop this fatal rot. There is Franco in Spain blowing thousands of innocent Basque & Castillians to bits. I’m glad Peter is out of all that—he felt it so terribly.
Burra’s twin sister, the singer Nell Moody, recalled the circumstances of the song’s composition:
After he was killed a mutual friend Julie Behrend (whose parents owned the cottage at Bucklebury where Pears was living with Peter at the time) suggested that Ben should write the song for me sing. I sang it first with Gordon Thorne accompanying at a concert in memory of Peter. I was to do it again at a Wigmore Hall recital with Norman Franklin; in fact the concert was fixed just before Peter died. But I was too emotionally upset and cancelled.
‘Not even summer yet’ was revived by Neil Mackie and Iain Burnside at the Wigmore Hall on 22 November 1983. Britten and Lennox Berkeley, who had also been in Barcelona in 1936, jointly inscribed their orchestral suite Mont Juic, based on Catalan folk tunes heard by them while in Spain, ‘in memory of Peter Burra’.
The Red Cockatoo was first performed by Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown on 17 June 1991 at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk, as part of the forty-fourth Aldeburgh Festival. It had been composed over forty years earlier, on 24 January 1938, while Britten was lodging with his sister Beth’s future parents-in-law at Peasenhall in Suffolk. He wrote in his diary: ‘Do a certain amount of work. Clearing up—writing a little music (Po-Chu-i).’ Although the setting appears to be unconnected to any larger scheme, this brief song demonstrates an early interest in Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poetry, perhaps influenced by Mahler’s settings of Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte in Das Lied von der Erde, a work Britten much admired. Almost twenty years later, Waley’s translations were to provide Britten with the texts for his tenor and guitar cycle Songs from the Chinese, Op 58.
The pair of Beddoes songs, Wild with passion and If thou wilt ease (entitled by the poet ‘Song, on the water’ and ‘Dirge for Wolfram’ respectively), were composed in April 1942 (‘If thou wilt ease’ on the 4th) during Britten’s and Pears’s Atlantic crossing on the Swedish cargo ship, the MS Axel Johnson. During the journey Britten planned Peter Grimes, finished off the Hymn to St Cecilia, Op 27, and composed A Ceremony of Carols, Op 28, finding the texts for the carols in The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullet, an anthology of poetry bought on 31 March in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the Axel Johnson made its last stop before attempting the dangerous Atlantic crossing in convoy. The same volume also included Beddoes’ poems as set by Britten, the texts of which are occasionally at variance with more authoritative editions. ‘If thou wilt ease thine heart’ must claim our attention as it contains early, tiny examples of simple heterophony in Britten’s music, a technique that Britten had first encountered through Balinese music (he had recorded two-piano transcriptions of Balinese music with the composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee in 1941, the year prior to the song’s composition) and which he was more fully to embrace in the 1960s.
Although Britten appears never to have pursued the idea of a Beddoes cycle, it is interesting to note that Pears may have wished to encourage the composer in such a project: in March 1944 he gave Britten a handsome, scholarly edition of Beddoes’ complete verse, edited by H W Donner. (Annotations in the back flyleaf of this volume suggest that Britten was considering the possibility of including Beddoes’ poems in the Nocturne, Op 60, and the uncomposed ‘Sea Symphony’ (c1974/5).) Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown gave the first performance of the Beddoes songs on 15 June 1992, at Blythburgh Church, Suffolk, as part of the forty-fifth Aldeburgh Festival.
Britten left an unfinished attempt at a setting of Louis MacNeice’s Cradle Song for Eleanor in the United States when he left in 1942. On his return to England he resumed his friendship with MacNeice with whom he had collaborated on two Group Theatre productions in the 1930s. The association was further strengthened in 1942 by MacNeice’s marriage to Hedli Anderson, for whom Britten and Auden composed their cabaret songs. In a letter to an American friend in September of that year Britten remarked: ‘I’m doing separate vocal works with Louis MacNeice, whom we see a great deal of.’ Britten’s completed setting of ‘Sleep, my darling, sleep’ probably dates from the autumn of 1942, when Britten and MacNeice also collaborated on a propaganda radio series entitled Britain to America. It may well have been intended for Hedli Anderson, who by no means restricted herself to cabaret repertoire; however, no information about performances by Anderson or anyone else has come to light. ‘Cradle Song’ was performed—presumably for the first time—by Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown on 15 June 1992, at Blythburgh Church, Suffolk, as part of the forty-fifth Aldeburgh Festival.
Little under a month after the premiere of This Way to the Tomb and during their collaboration on The Rape of Lucretia, Ronald Duncan provided the text for Britten’s Birthday Song for Erwin, a pièce d’occasion written to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the Austrian-born musician Erwin Stein (1885–1958) on 7 November 1945. Stein, who had been a pupil of Schoenberg, had first encountered Britten in 1934 when the composer visited Vienna in the hopes of meeting Alban Berg; Berg, unfortunately, was away from the city at that time, and Britten met with Stein instead, then employed as an editor at Berg’s publishers (Universal Edition), to whom Britten showed a number of his recent compositions. After the Anschluss in 1938 Stein fled from his homeland and moved to London where he worked as an editor at Boosey & Hawkes (Britten’s publishers since 1935). He soon became one of Britten’s closest friends and advisers. The celebratory song was first performed by Pears and Britten at Stein’s birthday party, an occasion described by the young violinist Winifred Roberts in a letter to her teacher, Antonio Brosa:
Mr Stein had his 61st [recte: 60th] birthday this week, & we had a jolly party with Ben, Peter & Ronnie Duncan. Ben & Peter sang, & Marion [Stein’s daughter] & I played a Schubert piano duet, & a Mozart violin & piano sonata, & Ben, Peter & I played Mozart’s Symphonia Concertante (Ben playing the viola). Ronnie Duncan wrote a greetings poem in honour of Mr Stein. Ben set it, & Peter sang it. I also heard one of Ben’s new settings of Donne’s Holy Sonnets.
The manuscript of the song was given to Stein in 1945. It remained unheard and unknown until discovered among Stein’s papers by his daughter Marion Thorpe in 1986, along with another important Britten manuscript, the rejected setting of Tennyson’s ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white’, intended for the Serenade. The song’s Lydian-inflected A major (an echt Britten touch) was undoubtedly inspired by Duncan’s opening line, ‘See how the sun strikes the bronze gong of the earth’, and has an affinity with Britten’s Young Apollo (1939), in the same sun-drenched tonality, and his last opera Death in Venice (1973).
After 1945, ‘Birthday Song for Erwin’ was not heard again until 1988, when it received its first public performance on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Britten’s birth (22 November) performed by Christopher Hobkirk and Rosalind Jones at the Royal College of Music, London.
The final song, Goethe’s Um Mitternacht, was probably written in 1959/60. In 1958 Britten had composed his Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op 61, which he dedicated to Prince Ludwig of Hesse and the Rhine on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. Perhaps to encourage the composer in his setting of German, Prince Ludwig gave Britten an edition, printed in 1959, of Goethe’s complete poetry. Over twenty poems in the volume have been marked by the composer in pencil, including ‘Um Mitternacht’, and this evidence suggests that Britten may have been considering a larger Goethe-based piece. ‘Um Mitternacht’, however, is the only survivor from the project. The song’s subject matter is reflected by the oscillating figure in the piano’s right hand and the twelve tolling bell-like chords in its lower register, each one rooted on a different pitch of the chromatic scale and divided equally among Goethe’s three stanzas. It is yet another fine example of Britten’s night music and very much in keeping with his sharply focused nocturnal preoccupations during the period around the composition of the orchestral song-cycle Nocturne and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first performance of ‘Um Mitternacht’ was given by Lucy Shelton and Ian Brown on 15 June 1992, at Blythburgh Church, Suffolk, as part of the forty-fifth Aldeburgh Festival.
Philip Reed © 1995