About this Recording
8.557222 - BRITTEN: Folk Song Arrangements, Vol. 2 (English Song, Vol. 13)
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Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Folk Song Arrangements • 2

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 plentiful, 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, and further sets were published in the following years. The last set of arrangements were made in the last summer of Britten’s life. His health had deteriorated and a heart operation in 1973, during which he had a slight stroke, prevented any further piano performance. In 1973 he had summoned all his strength towards the completion of his last opera, Death in Venice, with its perceived final great operatic rôle for Peter Pears, that of Aschenbach. With his encouragement Pears had collaborated with the pianist Murray Perahia in continuing recitals, and in 1975 he wrote his fifth canticle, The Death of St Narcissus, for Pears and the harpist Osian Ellis.

The last Eight Folk Song Arrangements, for high voice and harp, were also written for Peter Pears and Osian Ellis. Lord! I married me a wife is taken from English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil Sharp. The very simple tune is set off by the characteristic sonorities of the harp, which punctuate the repeated opening words and the consequences of marriage, in the words ‘wife’, ‘life’ and ‘work’. She’s like a swallow comes from Folk Songs from Newfoundland, collected by Maud Karpeles, and is presented with a flowing accompaniment, and Lemady, taken down from a singer in Whitby, is at first given the sparest of accompaniments, filling out in texture as the song proceeds. The fourth song Bonny at morn, taken from the collection Northumbrian Minstrelsie, uses characteristic fragments of canon. It is followed by two Welsh folk-songs, Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn, the opening words of which Osian Ellis gives in an English singing version as I was lonely and forlorn, with its harp arpeggio accompaniment, and Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), where Britten again finds scope for canon. The False Knight upon the road is a further song from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, edited, as before, by Maud Karpeles. It repeats its melody and accompaniment in its seven verses and repeated answers. The set ends with the lively Bird Scarer’s Song, collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset in 1904, graphically illustrated by the harp.

Britten’s unaccompanied arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy was made in 1957 for June Gordon and the Haddo House Choral Society. King Herod and the Cock and The Twelve Apostles are arrangements made in 1962 for the London Boy Singers, the first dramatically realised, and the second brought to life by its imaginative use of the piano. The Bitter Withy, which was left unfinished, was written for the same singers, tenor soloist and boys’ choir, also with solo voices. It is recorded as Britten left it, breaking off in the seventh verse.

The volume of arrangements of French songs, the second collection, 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 and recorded five of the French folk-song arrangements with the composer in 1943. The arrangements were made at Snape in 1942 and formed part of the recital repertoire of Pears and Britten. The orchestrated songs include a hunting-song, with the necessary suggestions of the hunting-horns, a spinningsong, Fileuse, with apt accompanying figuration, a pastoral love-song, a shepherd idyll, and a sad tale from a shepherd-boy, with a haunting refrain. Orchestral arrangements of five of the eight songs were made by Britten, with five of them first performed in Chicago in 1948 by the French baritone Martial Singher, the son-inlaw of Fritz Busch, who conducted the performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A sixth orchestration, of La noël passée, was probably made in 1953.

Four of the songs from the first published volume of 1943 were orchestrated by the composer for a performance given in London in December 1942 by Peter Pears with the New London Orchestra, conducted by Alex Sherman. These were a version of The Salley Gardens, an Irish song, with folk-style words by W.B.Yeats, two orchestrations of which exist from this period, one with strings and the other with bassoon, harp and strings, both included here. The second of the set, Little Sir William, 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 followed by a second Scottish tune, O can ye sew cushions?, a lullaby, presumably orchestrated during the same period. The orchestrations from the first book end with the lively Suffolk nurseryrhyme Oliver Cromwell. The orchestral arrangements of The Plough Boy, O Waly, Waly and Come you not from Newcastle, from the third published collection, were made in the 1950s.

Keith Anderson


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