The plays of Shakespeare (and this poem comes from the casket scene in The Merchant of Venice
) were out of the range of Poulenc’s usual literary interests. Marion, Countess of Harewood, invited Poulenc to contribute a setting to Classical Songs for Children
, an anthology she had put together with Ronald Duncan, published in 1964. She asked Britten and Kodály to set the same poem and all three composers obliged; it was the Countess’s close link with Britten that worked wonders, though the other composers took longer than Poulenc to answer the request. Poulenc disliked visiting seaside towns, and was intensely uncomfortable in Aldeburgh for his one and only visit there in 1956, but he was fond of Britten and Pears (and they of him) and he was a deep admirer of Britten’s genius. This little setting was dedicated ‘To Miles and Flora’, the child characters in Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw
. Poulenc consulted Bernac regarding the English prosody, and still failed to get it absolutely right … ‘Or in the
heart, or in the head?’). The song makes a charming epilogue to a disc that shows his ability to encompass different national styles and evoke the music of earlier epochs. It is, of course, Poulenc’s only song in English and part of its enduring charm is that it is utterly un-English in style.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013