About this Recording
8.557220-21 - BRITTEN: Folk Song Arrangements (English Song, Vol. 10)
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Folk Song Arrangements

Benjamin Britten occupies an unrivalled position in English music of the twentieth century and a place of the greatest importance in the wider musical world. While Elgar was in some ways part of late nineteenth-century German romantic tradition, Britten avoided the trap offered by musical nationalism and the insular debt to folk-music of his older compatriots, while profiting from that tradition in a much wider European context. He may be seen as following in part a path mapped out by Mahler. He possessed a special gift for word-setting and vocal writing, a facility that Purcell had shown and that was the foundation of a remarkable series of operas that brought English opera for the first time into international repertoire. Tonal in his musical language, he knew well how to use inventively, imaginatively, and, above all, musically, techniques that in other hands often seemed arid. His work owed much to the friendship and constant companionship of the singer Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote many of his principal operatic rôles and whose qualities of voice and intelligence clearly had a marked effect on his vocal writing.

Born in the East Anglian seaside town of Lowestoft in 1913, Britten showed early gifts as a composer, studying with Frank Bridge before a less fruitful time at the Royal College of Music in London. His association with the poet W.H. Auden, with whom he undertook various collaborations, was in part behind his departure with Pears in 1939 for the United States, where opportunities seemed to offer, away from the petty jealousies and inhibitions of his own country. The outbreak of war brought its own difficulties. Britten and Pears were firmly pacifist in their views, but were equally horrified at the excesses of National Socialism and sufferings that the war brought. Britten’s nostalgia for his native country and region led to their return to England in 1942, when they rejected the easy option of nominal military service as musicians in uniform in favour of overt pacifism, but were able to give concerts and recitals, often in difficult circumstances, offering encouragement to those who heard them. The reopening of Sadler’s Wells and the staging of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes started a new era in English opera. The English Opera Group was founded and a series of chamber operas followed, with larger scale works that established Britten as a composer of the highest stature, a position recognised shortly before his early death by his elevation to the peerage, the first English composer ever to be so honoured.

It was in some sense a certain nostalgia that lay behind Britten’s many folk-song arrangements. He had a particular gift for bringing out the qualities implicit in a melody and text, something displayed to admirable effect in his version of The Beggar’s Opera. The first set of songs from the British Isles was published in 1943, but the seven arrangements were made during Britten’s time in America and formed an element in recital programmes offered there by Pears and the composer [CD1, 1-7]. It was generously reviewed by Vaughan Williams, modestly decrying his own very different approach to such material. Each song is dedicated to a friend in America. The set starts with The Salley Gardens, dedicated to the Australian-born singer Clytie Mundy, with whom Pears took lessons in America, an Irish song, with folk-style words by W.B. Yeats. The second of the set, Little Sir William, dedicated to William Mayer, father of a family into which Pears and Britten were welcomed in America, is a ballad, its words slightly modified in publication to avoid the traditional anti-semitism of the text. The poignant Scottish lament for The Bonny Earl o’ Moray is dedicated to the psychiatrist Mildred Titley, wife of the Superintendent of the Long Island Home, where William Mayer was Medical Director. A second Scottish tune O can ye sew cushions? is a lullaby, dedicated to Clytie Mundy’s daughter Meg, a singer, and the moving The trees they grow so high, a Somerset folk-song, with its gradually developing then diminishing accompaniment, to Bobby Rothman, the son of a friend introduced by the Meyers. The Welsh The Ash Grove, with its fine use of canon, a favourite device, has a dedication to Beata, daughter of William and Elisabeth Mayer, and the lively Suffolk nursery-rhyme Oliver Cromwell to their son Christopher.

The second volume of arrangements [CD2, 11-18] was published in 1946 and dedicated to Britten’s young friends Arnold and Humphrey Gyde, the latter his godson, the children of the singer Sophie Wyss, who gave the first performances of Les Illuminations. The present writer remembers hearing some of these and other songs a few years earlier. They include a Christmas carol, a celebration of spring, a spinningsong, Fileuse, with apt accompanying figuration, a hunting-song, with the necessary suggestions of the hunting-horns, a shepherd idyll, a sterner spinning-song, with a repeated bass figure, a pastoral love-song, and a final sad tale from a shepherd-boy, with a haunting refrain.

Published in 1947, bringing together further songs that had already formed part of concert repertoire for Peter Pears and the composer, the third volume [CD1, 11-17], devoted to songs from the British Isles, starts with The Plough Boy, his whistling over the lea vividly first illustrated in the opening bars. The sad Scottish song There’s none to soothe is followed by the lively narrative of Sweet Polly Oliver, in which Britten resorts to his favourite device of canon, The Miller of Dee, with his mill-wheel duly turning, and the wicked suggestiveness of The foggy, foggy dew. To this O Waly, Waly offers a contrast, and the set ends with Come you not from Newcastle?, over an ostinato bass variously harmonized.

It was not until 1960 that a fourth volume of folksong arrangements appeared, this time devoted to a group of Moore’s Irish Melodies [CD2, 1-10]. Once again some of these songs had been heard in much earlier recitals. The first song, Avenging and bright, is marked Fast and fierce, with opening suggestions of a harp-chord, briskly struck, before the more ominous growling bass of the third verse. Sail on, sail on is a song of parting, as the boat gently rocks, while fragmentary echo is duly heard in How sweet the answer. The wild harp of The Minstrel Boy is heard to brave effect, followed by the nocturnal At the mid hour of night, over a drone-like bass. The device of canon is used once more in Rich and rare, Dear Harp of my Country! has harplike figuration, while Oft in the stilly night unwinds over repeated bass figuration, later inverted. The very familiar The last rose of summer is nostalgically accompanied by harp arpeggiations, and the album ends with the patriotic ostinato of O the sight entrancing.

The fifth volume once more brings together songs from the British Isles. It was published in 1961, but represents songs written at least during the preceding decade [CD1, 19-23]. Britten again uses canon in the lively narrative of The Brisk Young Widow and subtle use of the rising interval on the girl’s name in Sally in our Alley. The Lincolnshire Poacher presents further opportunities for canonic writing, as it reaches its climax, to which Early one morning offers a gentle contrast. The volume closes with the Robert Burns Ca’ the yowes, the melody used as a source of canon in reduced note values.

The sixth volume, also published in 1961, is for high voice and guitar, songs performed by Peter Pears and the guitarist Julian Bream [CD2, 19-24]. The running accompaniment of the first song, I will give my love an apple, a Dorset folk-song, is fully within the idiom of the guitar, a characteristic of the second cheerful Appalachian Sailor-boy, with its nautical touches and uses of grand and petit barré. There is a graceful chordal accompaniment to Master Kilby, exploring in its conclusion the varied possibilities of guitar timbre. A pattern of ascending thirds marks The Soldier and the Sailor, and the North Country Bonny at Morn uses varied arpeggiation, exploring, as elsewhere, the harmonies inherent in traditional guitar tuning. The final song is The Shooting of his Dear, in which characteristic guitar harmony again makes its appearance.

The collection Tom Bowling and Other Song Arrangements was published in 2001, edited, with a useful introduction, by Paul Kildea. It brings together songs performed but not published during the composer’s lifetime, some of them held back through copyright problems with collectors of the melodies and their publishers. Greensleeves, I wonder as I wander and the sailor’s yarn The Crocodile [CD1, 8-10] date from 1940-41, Pray Goody, [CD1, 18] from 1945-46, and Soldier, won’t you marry me and The Deaf Woman’s Courtship [CD1, 25-26] apparently for recitals by Peter Pears and the contralto Norma Procter from the 1950s. The Holly and the Ivy [CD1, 24] has not been dated, and The Stream in the Valley (Da unten im Tale) [CD2, 25] was first broadcast in 1946 with the cellist Maurice Gendron, the first song in a projected set of German folk-song arrangements. Also included is an unidentified folk-song setting, here, in the absence of words, given to the cello [CD2, 26].

Keith Anderson


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