Part 1: What, then, did I want
Part 2: To climb trees
Part 3: To ride at noon
Part 4: To lie on my back
The influence of Purcell was critical for Tippett who, like Britten himself, felt strongly the need to get away from the Romantic–pastoral vein of previous generations of English composers, and sought a new approach through a harking back to the music of the pre-Romantic past. In the case of Boyhood’s End the Purcellian influence is largely structural, in the suggestion of recitative, arioso and aria, the melismatic vocal-writing and sometimes quasi-modal harmony, while the lean, energetic cross-rhythms owe as much to Tippett’s interest in jazz as to those in Elizabethan and Jacobean dance music. In this of course he had much in common with American contemporaries like Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter, who were tuned in to a similar Zeitgeist. (As an aside, I remember Tippett in a lecture once recalling a would-be composer who had asked him for comments on his compositions. Evidently these exhibited the worst tendencies of English Romanticism, for the young man went away greatly offended when Tippett told him that what he needed was a course in hot jazz.)
The opening of Boyhood’s End is strikingly dramatic. Vigorous piano octaves announce the simple question: ‘What, then, did I want?’ The answer – ‘I want only to keep what I have’ – is an astonishing outburst, extending those eight short words through fifteen bars of virtuoso vocal-writing, from the fortissimo top A flat of ‘want’, itself lasting two and a half bars, to the pianissimo E natural an octave and a half lower of ‘have’. From here, Tippett builds the rest of the first section in a series of waves, the first two culminating in fanfare-like cadenzas in the piano, the third in the ecstatic exclamation ‘Oh, those wild beautiful cries of the golden plover!’. This in turn launches an even more energetic outburst, in which two words – ‘uprising’ and ‘dance’ – are again stretched to inordinate length in the kind of hocketing, syncopated melismas that would only resurface in Tippett’s music fifteen years later, when he came to compose Achilles’ war cry in King Priam.
The Andante section that follows is a complete contrast. The slow, almost motionless octaves of the piano part, imperceptibly expanding and contracting, seem satiated with heat, while the voice swoons in falling intervals, heavy with the sensual overload of Hudson’s recollections. In the Allegro molto the notion of riding evokes predictably dotted rhythms, and the multitude of flora and fauna – storks, ibises, grey herons, flamingos – invites cascades of piano semiquavers. Finally calming down, the closing Allegro piacevole completes the idyll, the long lines in both voice and piano spanning the octaves from lowest bass to highest treble, as the youth lies gazing at the ‘white-hot whitey-blue sky’ and the myriads of balls of thistledown, the final line, with its long-held top A, being a metaphor for his emotional transportation.
Boyhood’s End must have presented a formidable challenge to its dedicatees. Two years later Britten was to return the compliment. His first Canticle, My Beloved is Mine, is also cast in four contrasting sections, and in its opening pages comes as close as Britten ever did to imitating Tippett’s ecstatic, syncopated vocal melismas.
from notes by Roger Vignoles © 2005