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Who are these children?, Op 84
There is of course no chance of undervaluing the sophistication of either the thought or the composition of Benjamin Britten. In the case of his song-cycles, each is the product of careful planning, both in the choice of texts and in the way Britten seems to evolve a special musical language to correspond to that of the poet or poets he is setting. As an opera composer, Britten had an uncanny way of getting inside the speech-patterns of his characters. In a similar way both the Hölderlin Fragments and Who are these children? show a remarkable adaptation of his own essential style to the idioms of German and Scots respectively. In the case of the Hölderlin songs one senses strongly the influence of Hugo Wolf, especially in the opening and closing songs, while in Die Heimat the pianistic writing and the echoes of nature recall the Eichendorff songs of Schumann. In the Scots songs of Who are these children? it is above all the vocal inflection that is so brilliantly captured, though Britten is also adept at imparting a correspondingly nasal wheeze to the piano part, with its frequent suggestion of bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy.

William Soutar, who was born in Perth in 1898 and died in 1943, wrote his many delightful children’s poems in Scots, but chose English for his more ambitious poems. This double perspective of childlike innocence and adult consciousness had an obvious attraction for Britten, who incorporated four of the English poems into a selection of eight of the Scots. In keeping with the cycle’s framework, which is kept firmly at the level of childhood, Britten begins with a brisk call to arms, as if played on toy trumpet and drum (interestingly, the same toy drum can be heard tapping away in the left hand of the Hölderlin song Die Jugend), followed by the sunny, hands-in-pockets insouciance of A Laddie’s Sang. It is only with the third song, Nightmare, that the darker heart of the work is revealed, the uncanny atmosphere emphasized by a deliberate lack of synchronization between the voice and the piano’s right hand. In the next ‘English’ song, Slaughter, the heterophony is even more extreme, with the voice riding on a whirlwind canon between the two hands in octaves.

The third of the English poems, the ninth song in the sequence and the one that gives the work its title, was inspired by a war-time photograph that appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in 1941. Appropriately, it is one of Britten’s most vividly pictorial songs, not only in the brazen swagger of the hunting horns and the nonchalant sway of the voice – as if keeping a well-practised seat – but also in the arpeggiated sevenths that Britten smears across the keyboard at the words ‘Brightness of blood’, and the staccato crack of ‘whips’. But all this recedes as if into a distant haze – ‘Is there a dale more calm’ – until the final question is uttered as at one remove, with the hunting horns receding, still oblivious, into the distance.

This fade-out, followed by the domestic stasis of Supper (poised on the pedal-point of the piano’s augmented-fourth harmony like the still figures in a diorama), prepares the ground for the final ‘English’ song, The Children, in which Britten delivers his coup de grâce. Against the distant whine of the air-raid siren and the insidious drone of enemy bombers, the song evokes a terrible beauty as ‘Death came out of the sky / In the bright afternoon’. In the siren’s eerie glissando and the churning triads that portray the corruption of men’s hearts there are echoes of previous songs by Britten – the train-whistle in Winter Words and the bubbling cauldron of A Poison Tree from the Blake songs – and a truly Blakean despair in the broken tones of the last line: ‘And our charity is in the children’s faces’.

As the air-raid siren fades to nothing, its top note is transformed to the top D of a simple major triad, ushering in the final song, The Auld Aik. This however is not the song’s real tonality, but its leading note, and it is to the deep chord of E flat that we hear the repeated tolling of the word ‘doun’ that signals the end of everything. In Schubert and other lieder composers D major is the key of nature, of greenery and sunlight, E flat the key of night and darkness, and in this daringly simple gesture Britten underlines the change brought about by the loss of the old tree.

from notes by Roger Vignoles © 2005

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Details for CDA67459 track 19
Recording date
13 February 2004
Recording venue
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Britten, Finzi & Tippett: Songs (CDA67459)
    Disc 1 Track 19
    Release date: February 2005
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