Britten’s Five Flower Songs
date from the spring of 1950 and were first performed privately on 23 July of that year at Dartington Hall, by a student choir conducted by Imogen Holst (who went on to become Britten’s amanuensis at Aldeburgh two years later). The songs were dedicated to Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst as a silver-wedding present, and appropriately celebrated the couple’s love of botany. The first performance was an outdoor affair mounted specially for the dedicatees, who owned Dartington and had contributed generously to the cost of setting up Britten’s English Opera Group three years before. By this stage in his career, Britten had already shown himself to be an accomplished setter of English pastoral poetry (notably in the Serenade
of 1943), and his response to the texts by Herrick, Crabbe and Clare is economical, imaginative and assured. The Crabbe text, ‘Marsh flowers’, must have had a special appeal for the composer, since it had been Crabbe’s poetry that inspired him to return to Suffolk from the USA in 1942 to compose the opera Peter Grimes
, based on Crabbe’s epic poem The borough
. In the final flower song, ‘Ballad of green Broom’, Britten depicts a strummed lute accompaniment with a dexterity recalling the imitations of instrumental sonorities in his Hymn to St Cecilia
, composed on his voyage home from America.
from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2001