Emulation of baroque mannerisms colours the first song, Let the florid music praise!
.The opening arpeggios (in a characteristic D major) and their transference to the voice as a quasi-coloratura are suggestive of Handel, but in the more contemplative ‘siciliano’ in G minor, which forms the second half of the song, the arpeggio motive is transformed into an affecting ‘obbligato’. Now the leaves are falling fast
, a disturbing meditation on the last hours of life, is portrayed in passages of semiquavers for the voice, grouped in pairs for each syllable, supported by rising harmonies in the right hand of the piano and the left’s punctuative V-I at the end of each phrase. In the third verse of Britten’s uncomplicated strophic plan, these unostentatious components are all developed, rising to a climax on the Neapolitan, G flat. This high point of emotional anxiety (‘And the angel will not come’) is checked by the tranquil restatement of the introduction (‘Cold, impossible, ahead Lifts the mountain’s lovely head’) which, as a functional dominant, provides a transition to the coda, itself a muscial distillation of the entire song. In Seascape
, strong contrapuntal lines, extended pedal points, and repetitive, wave-like figurations portray the elemental experience of beholding the vast seascape from the edge of a cliff. Such simplicity and economy of means is revealed with even greater astringency in Nocturne
whose two principal features are its block chords and a vocal line that commences with a rising arpeggio and tails off with a winding descent. Much of the striking beauty of the song resides in the composer’s inventive, slow-moving harmony, and the compelling balance he creates between progressions of an unconventional and conventional type. Like the second song of the cycle, Britten pursues a modified strophic design, developing his two constituent strands of material sequentially (‘While the splendid and the proud’) in the third verse. The final strophe of text is, however, subtly altered. After a ponderous monotone in the voice (‘Unpursued by hostile force’) in a more remote tonal area, the original vocal arpeggio begins again (‘Calmly till the morning break’) exceeding its former octave span and phrase-length to a high G. This event, which serves to emphasise the foreign key of C minor, makes the transforming shift back to the home tonality of C sharp minor all the more arresting, and the piano’s ‘wordless’ utterance of the secondary melodic strand is made the more eloquent by the singer’s brief closing comment (‘then gently wake’). As it is, plenty
is a reflection of Auden’s distaste for the bourgeoisie, the biting satire of which Britten dresses up in a distorted pastiche of pre-war dance music.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2001