Unlike the rich Italianate palette of the Michelangelo Sonnets, the textures of the Hardy songs are spare and economical. They date from a turning-point in Britten’s music which was finally reached in the chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw (1954). The very opening of At day-close in November illustrates this point. Within the eight-bar piano introduction Britten employs all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. In The Turn of the Screw such textures of total chromaticism were further articulated by twelve-note ordering. But this ‘continental’ element is merely a sign of things to come. Most of the songs are strikingly English in tone.
The sequence begins with a nostalgic reflection of the passing of time. The trees Hardy himself planted in his ‘June time’ now ‘obscure the sky’. Midnight on the Great Western is distinguished by the onomatopoeic evocation of the train’s whistle and the constant motion of the carriage. It also reflects the deeply compassionate side of Britten’s nature in its touching picture of the lonely child travelling towards an unknown destination, perhaps even to death? Wagtail and Baby and The Little Old Table are two miniatures of rare perfection. The Choirmaster’s Burial, by contrast, is an extended narrative ballad in which the choirmaster’s favourite hymn-tune, ‘Mount Ephraim’ is twice evoked by Britten. It also includes some of the freest, most melismatic vocal writing in the cycle. Proud Songsters, another miniature, is the most brilliant of the settings. It is followed by another narrative ballad, At the Railway Station, Upway, in which the voice is confined to recitative while the piano reproduces the dry, brittle tones of the violin.
With the final song the sequence comes full circle. Before Life and After is a bitter song of longing for the state of the world before consciousness dawned, when ‘none suffered sickness, love or loss’. Its relentless repeated triads are like the march of Time, the vocal line constantly trying to free itself. The song, indeed the work, ends with the question, ‘How long before nescience is reaffirmed. How long?’. It was a question that troubled Britten till the very end of his life and it was responsible for the musical question-marks we hear at the end of Death in Venice and the Third String Quartet.
from notes by John Evans © 1986
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