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Winter Words, Op 52

author of text

Thomas Hardy’s many collections of poems date from the later years of his life and perhaps for this reason many of the poems convey a note of regretful stoicism. Britten completed his settings of a selection of Hardy’s lyrics and ballads in September 1953, and the title of the work, Winter Words, is also Hardy’s. Though not strictly speaking a cycle, Winter Words is more than merely a collection of songs. Britten has paid very careful attention to the tonal structure of the sequence and the dramatic rhythm of temporal and textural contrast. The work begins and ends in D, and even within the context of the minor mode of the first song, the major mode of ‘Before Life and After’ is anticipated at the words ‘when no trees, no tall trees grew here’ – presumably ‘before the birth of consciousness’.

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


Britten: Michelangelo Sonnets & Winter Words
CDH55067Archive Service
A Treasury of English Song
This album is not yet available for downloadHYP30Super-budget price sampler — Deleted


No 1: At day-close in November  The ten hours’ light is abating
Track 13 on CDH55067 [1'43] Archive Service
No 2: Midnight on the Great Western 'The journeying boy'  In the third-class seat sat the journeying boy
Track 14 on CDH55067 [4'49] Archive Service
No 3: Wagtail and baby 'A satire'  A baby watched a ford, whereto
Track 15 on CDH55067 [2'04] Archive Service
No 4: The little old table  Creak, little wood thing, creak
Track 16 on CDH55067 [1'23] Archive Service
No 5: The choirmaster's burial 'The tenor man's story'  He often would ask us
Track 17 on CDH55067 [3'45] Archive Service
Track 13 on HYP30 [3'45] Super-budget price sampler — Deleted
No 6: Proud songsters 'Thrushes, finches and nightingales'  The thrushes sing as the sun is going
Track 18 on CDH55067 [1'04] Archive Service
No 7: At the railway station, Upway 'The convict and the boy with the violin'  There is not much that I can do
Track 19 on CDH55067 [2'46] Archive Service
No 8: Before life and after  A time there was — as one may guess
Track 20 on CDH55067 [3'20] Archive Service

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