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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDH55225
Recording details: November 1995
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: May 1996
Total duration: 9 minutes 38 seconds

The Sword in the Stone
composer
1939; incidental music for a dramatic adaptation of T H White's eponymous novel

Bird Music  [1'02]
Lullaby  [1'24]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

from notes by Philip Reed © 1996

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