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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Les illuminations & other works

Scottish Ensemble
Download only
Recording details: July 2003
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by Calum Malcolm
Release date: May 2005
Total duration: 72 minutes 32 seconds

Cover artwork: Photo of Benjamin Britten.
Estate of Enid Slater

This album brings together three youthful masterworks all composed by Benjamin Britten before his 30th birthday. Individually and collectively they demonstrate a fertile musical imagination of a high order combined with astonishing technical skills.


'There is playing of impressive unanimity of purpose, as one might expect from a small ensemble of highly-skilled musicians' (Gramophone)» More

'Spence moves skilfully between sexless ethereality, virile excitement, bitter rasping, and an almost feminine voluptousness. Violinist Clio Gould wins stars as both soloist and director of the Scottish Ensemble, while Martin Owen's horn solo is assured and eloquent. An irresistable recording' (The Independent on Sunday)» More

'This is an outstanding disc, particularly a showcase for the talents of tenor Toby Spence and the excellent players of the Scottish Ensemble' (ClassicsToday.com)» More
In May 1937 the conductor Boyd Neel was invited to give a concert of British works at the Salzburg Festival with his string orchestra. A condition of the engagement was that a new work should be included. Neel knew that finding a composer to write a work at such short notice would be a challenge and making a daring choice, he turned to the 24-year-old Britten, then still unknown to a wider public in Britain, let alone Europe. Neel had conducted Britten’s music for the film Love from a Stranger and had noticed his skill at composing at speed. Britten accepted the commission and within 10 days Neel had a draft score in his hands. Just four weeks later the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge was complete.

Neel was delighted that his faith in Britten had been rewarded, realising that here was a work in which the string orchestra was ‘exploited with a daring and invention never before known.’ Britten’s own skill as a viola player stood him in good stead since the string writing is conceived on a virtuoso level, with every nuance of colour being exploited. The work received its public premiere at the Salzburg Festival on 27 August 1937; the marked impression it made on the audience initiated Britten’s international renown.

Britten had conceived the work as a tribute to his teacher and mentor whose influence in his formative years had been profound. It is based on the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for string quartet of 1906. At the head of the score, Britten wrote: ‘To F.B. A tribute with affection and admiration.’ The leading Bridge authority, Paul Hindmarsh, has noted too that Britten’s tribute went much further, for on the presentation score he gave to Bridge, Britten links each movement to aspects of Bridge’s personality, which are referred to in the description of the individual movements below. The work is cast in a free variation form, so that at times the links with Bridge’s theme are tenuous. Overall the variations may be viewed as a series of vivid character sketches, frequently parodying particular musical forms.

In the Introduction and Theme (described as ‘Himself’ on Bridge’s presentation score), Britten begins the work in a demonstrative manner with a sweeping fanfare-like phrase. Bridge’s melancholy theme is outlined first on a solo violin, then fully harmonised for solo quartet. The music continues directly into the next section, Adagio (‘His depth’, which Britten changed in his own short score sketch to ‘His integrity,’) where alternating with dark, troubled chords derived from Bridge’s harmony on the lower strings, the violins play an impassioned line. A quick March (‘His energy’) somewhat sinister in tone follows, then a Romance (‘His charm’ [‘His wit in Britten’s score]) in which the composer seems to be guying the so-called English pastoral school of composers.

The Aria Italiana (‘His humour’) is an instance of Britten’s sheer compositional panache: a brilliant satire of Rossinian coloratura as the first violins soar above the stave lines accompanied by the strumming pizzicati of the second violins, violas and cellos who are instructed to play like a guitar. In the lively Bourrée classique (‘His tradition’) there is a prominent violin solo which has a sly dig at a harmonic fingerprint of the Baroque, the cycle of 5ths, whilst the Wiener walzer (‘His enthusiasm’ [in Britten’s sketch, ‘His gaiety’]) is surely Britten’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the circumstances of the commission, as well as signalling his admiration for two giants of Viennese composition, Mahler and Berg.

The Moto perpetuo (‘His vitality’ [‘His enthusiasm’ in the sketch]), is a burst of energy with tremolo strings rushing helter-skelter from the highest to the lowest registers. In the Funeral march (‘His sympathy’ to which in the sketch Britten added ‘Understanding’), the falling 5th of the theme is transformed into the beat of drums in the double-basses over which the first violins, later joined by the other upper strings, play a sorrowful lament. The eerie Chant (‘His reverence’) is heard in the divided violas offset by harmonics. This provides a moment of stasis prior to the Fugue and Finale. The former is a swashbuckling compositional tour-de-force within which Britten, in masterly fashion, weaves quotations from five of Bridge’s finest works played by the solo quartet high above the fugal textures. This leads to a final, rather Mahlerian, outpouring of Bridge’s theme in the rich key of D major as the culmination of this quite remarkable composition.

In 1938 Britten discovered the prose-poetry of the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) probably through his friend W.H.Auden. The highly charged, colourful language and images excited him and the poetry also chimed with Britten’s own heart-searchings at a time when he was confused about several personal relationships, as well as the threatening European situation, and indeed his place within English musical life. Britten and Peter Pears left for the USA in May 1939 for an indefinite period. He took with him the manuscript of what was to become Les illuminations finishing it in Amityville, New York, on 25 October 1938. The first complete performance (two movements having been performed separately) was given by Sophie Wyss (the overall dedicatee) and the Boyd Neel Orchestra with Neel conducting on 30 January 1940 at the Wigmore Hall, London.

Apart from teenage settings of Verlaine, these were the first texts in a foreign language that Britten had set and they mark a more cosmopolitan development in his art. Once again Britten’s consummate understanding of the stringed instruments is evident in the opening bars of Fanfare, where the listener’s attention is grabbed by stunning musical images: incisive fanfares on violas and first violins as well as swooping upwards glissandi from the latter. These lead to the soloist intoning the enigmatic recurring motto: ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’ (‘I alone hold the key to this savage parade’). The motto is taken up by solo violin over icy glissandi harmonics on violas and cellos.

The relentless momentum of Rimbaud’s fantastical poetic prose evoking cities and their denizens is conjured in Villes over ever changing pulsating accompaniments as Britten responds vividly to the swiftly changing series of images created by the words, for example, the frenetic gallop of hooves at ‘Des cortèges de Mabs en robes rousses, opalines’ (‘Corteges of Queen Mabs in robes red and opaline’). In Phrase, over delicate widely spaced harmonics that seem suspended in the air, the soloist sings an ethereal line which culminates in a descending vocal glissando on the final word ‘danse’ and with it a magical change of harmony.

Antique is one of the miracles of Les illuminations where Britten creates his sensuous melody from the simplest of musical material (a B flat arpeggio) to make something completely new and original. It is set against the serenading strumming of the violas and cellos playing pizzicato as if like a guitar, in the same manner as in the Aria Italiana in the Frank Bridge Variations but to very different effect. The personal nature of this evocation of male beauty is reflected in the dedication of this movement to ‘K.H.W.S’—Wulff Scherchen—(son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen) who was a close friend of Britten at that time. Royauté describes how two lovers imagine that they become regents for a day, consequently the music has a suitably majestic gait. The setting in rondeau form has an almost operatic quality with its parlando directness that is a pointer to the composer’s future.

Marine is a sparkling seascape and this breezy setting suggests the brilliance of dancing light on waves. Britten’s evocation is achieved, not only by the string writing built around a glinting ostinato figure, but also through the crisp open-air vocal line. After all this activity, a pensive Interlude follows with a dark, sinewy descending idea; towards the end the motto returns, now sombre and muted. This movement was dedicated ‘To E.M.’—Elizabeth Mayer—at whose home Britten and Pears lived for several months during their American sojourn, and in whom the composer found a replacement figure to his own mother who had died in 1937.

Being Beauteous (Rimbaud wrote his title in English) is dedicated to ‘P.N.L.P.’—Peter Pears—whose long-term relationship with Britten had crystallised during their stay in America (even though the movement had been completed before their departure). Britten’s passionate lovesong to his lifelong companion floats over the softly rocking accompaniment. Britten’s setting of Parade is the most Mahlerian in the work where the nightmare images of the vocal line are heightened by a march in the strings with a twisting, uneasy theme which also refers back to the music of Fanfare. The climax is reached with the last appearance of the motto. Finally with Départ, the cycle ends in music of penetrating poignancy and regret in the aching, arching curve of the soloist’s melody.

During the time Britten lived in the USA he became increasingly homesick. In 1941, by chance, he read an article by E.M. Forster about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe; its opening line was: ‘To think of Crabbe is to think about England’, and his reaction to these emotive words confirmed in him a growing feeling that his place was in Britain. That chance reading of the article brought him home in April 1942 and also sowed the seeds for an opera based on one of Crabbe’s characters, the tormented fisherman, Peter Grimes. Significantly too, once back in England the first major composition he composed, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, not only marked a return to setting the English language after Rimbaud and Michelangelo, but was an overt celebration of his native land.

The Serenade, composed in 1943, drew its inspiration from an anthology of nocturnal poems brilliantly chosen by Britten and the work’s dedicatee, the critic and writer Edward Sackville-West. Of equal importance too, as in many of Britten’s works, was the inspiration of the musicianship of a particular artist, in this instance two artists, Peter Pears, and the horn player, Dennis Brain, then just 21 whom Britten had met when the latter, as a member of the RAF orchestra, played some incidental music by him for a radio series. The premiere of the Serenade was given on 15 October 1943 at the Wigmore Hall by Pears, Brain, and an ad hoc string orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr.

Britten quizzed Brain on aspects of horn writing and technique which is apparent in the highly original Prologue and Epilogue for solo horn which frame the vocal movements of the Serenade and are played on the instrument’s natural harmonics without the use of valves. They may be likened to an eerie talisman through which the listener enters and returns from a nocturnal world. As Sackville-West explained in an article about Britten in 1944: ‘The whole sequence forms an Elegy or Nocturnal (as Donne would have called it) resuming the thoughts and images suitable to evening.’

In Cotton’s Evening Quatrains (‘Pastoral’), the horn’s opening syncopated rhythm is taken up by the strings to create a gently rocking rustle of movement, whilst the descending horn phrase echoes the tenor’s melody. Both combine to paint a landscape of lengthening sunset shadows. A change of texture, with the strings playing pizzicato, mirrors the words at ‘A very little, little flock’, whilst in the final verse the opening roles are reversed as the horn takes up the opening rhythm and the upper strings follow the vocal line. The music ends with an unforgettable aural image as the tenor’s downward phrase perfectly portrays the sun slipping under the horizon.

The violins’ dancing rhythms, suggestive of spurts of majestic evening light, set the scene for Tennyson’s Blow, Bugle, Blow (‘Nocturne’). A free cadenza for the two soloists, over soft murmuring string trills, rounds off each verse as they imitate the bugle calls of elfland. ‘Elegy’ opens with ominous, pulsing string chords underpinning the horn’s rising and falling line that incorporates all twelve notes of the chromatic scale; it burrows its cankerous way in a complementary musical image to the words of Blake’s short poem The Sick Rose. In its heart the tenor’s recitative-like melodic line describes in passionate tones the destruction wrought to the rose by the ‘invisible worm that flies in the night’, synonymous with the sin that lurks in the hearts of mankind.

Dirge is a spectral funeral march setting the anonymous 15th-century A Lyke-Wake Dirge, built around an ostinato theme set right at the top of the tenor register, and so heightening the extreme emotion of the text, which is a spine-chilling nightmare of Judgement Day. The horrifying images of hell-fire are unleashed musically by a fugato beginning in the rumbling depths of the double basses and culminating with the terrifying apocalyptic entry of the horn.

Johnson’s Hymn to Diana (‘Hymn’) provides a quicksilver scherzo-like contrast with the horn now liberated and exuberant as it is transformed by fleet triplets into the hunting calls of the Goddess Diana. Each verse ends with virtuosic vocal roulades for the tenor. In a further masterstroke of scoring, Britten omits the horn from the last vocal movement, a profound setting of Keats’s To Sleep (‘Sonnet’). It rises to a passionate climax at ‘Turn the key deftly’, and leads to the Epilogue played now by the horn offstage as the music fades and recedes into the unconscious, mysterious state of sleep and dreams.

Andrew Burn 2005

This CD brings together three youthful masterworks all composed by Benjamin Britten before his 30th birthday within the space of a mere six years. Individually and collectively they demonstrate a fertile musical imagination of a high order combined with astonishing technical skills.

Andrew Burn 2005

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