About this Recording
8.553834 - BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor / Les Illuminations / Nocturne

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Serenade

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)


Les Illuminations



Born in the Suffolk port of Lowestoft in 1913, Benjamin Brit ten was destined to become the pre- eminent British composer of his generation and, as the works recorded here amply testify, the most consummate setter of the English language in song since Henry Purcell, Brit ten began to compose at the age of five, displaying prodigious natural gifts which hastened, in his thirteenth year, a defining period of study with Frank Bridge. In 1930 he entered the Royal College of Music in London to study piano and composition. Four years later, after hearing Alban Berg's Wozzeck, he resolved to further his studies under Berg in Vienna, but in the event had to content himself with the rather less appealing prospect of writing film music for the General Post Office's Documentary Department. It was here that Brit ten met W.H. Auden, a future collaborator on such works as the symphonic song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers. Radical and disjunctive compositions of the late 1930s stamped Brit ten as an enfant terrible in the eyes of a conservative British musical establishment, and in 1939 he left for the United States of America, accompanied by the tenor Peter Pears.


Comparative artistic freedom resulted in several ground-breaking works, notably the Sinfonia da Requiem and First String Quartet, but Brit ten's growing unease precipitated a retum to England in 1942, and the start of almost three decades in which the 'angry young man' of British music consolidated growing universal fame, largely through a succession of major operatic triumphs. Centering his life around the Suffolk village of Aldeburgh, his home for the remainder of his life, Benjamin Brit ten always retained a Kiplingesque ‘common touch’, affirming his personal artistic credo in the words '1 want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to enhance their lives...'. As the musicologist Donald Mitchell noted in 1977, a year after Britten's death, 'there is an intensely solitary and private spirit, a troubled, sometimes even despairing visionary, an artist much haunted by nocturnal imagery, by sleep, by presentiments of mortality...'. Such indeed are the universally compelling issues, at once disquieting and consolatory, which inform the works heard on this recording.


The three works assembled here reflect one of the principal forces at work in Britten's mature creativity. No other British composer of his epoch resorted so often nor with such conspicuous success to the orchestral song cycle. Of Britten's song-scapes with orchestral accompaniment there are six. The series began in 1928 with Quatre Chansons francaises; Our Hunting Fathers followed in 1936, and then came Les Illuminations in 1939, the Serenade/or tenor, horn, and strings in 1943, and in 1949 the mighty Spring Symphony, with its settings of poems from Spenser to Blake and W.H. Auden, before ending in 1958 with the Nocturne, Op 60. When considered by the side of his song-cycles for voice and single accompanying instrument, Britten 's output in this area is seen as one of the most significant of any English composer, representing the response of the twentieth century to the achievements of the great Tudor polyphonists and the vocal works of Henry Purcell.


Britten's remarkable facility as a composer for the human voice transcended any language barrier. Indeed, his settings of ten texts by Arthur Rimbaud (1854- 1891), issued under the collective title Les Illuminations, seemed to herald a new-found clarity of utterance, a world removed from the public, and predominantly left-wing, statements of the 1930s. Yet paradoxically, this work somehow belies its interior musings and the soul-searching anguish of much of its content, deftly concealing, not always deeply, but never confusing aphorism with the loneliness of the remote observer. Les Illuminations was written for the soprano Sophie Wyss, who gave the first performance in 1940, though at publication Brit ten stressed its suitability for the tenor voice.


After the sinister opening declamations of Fanfare, l' ai seulla clef de cette parade sauvage (1 alone hold the key to this savage parade), Rimbaud's lines reveal those incisive powers of private and public observation at which Brit ten, too, excelled. Les Bacchanles des banlieues (suburban Bacchantes), the pompous, risible absurdities of Royaute (Royalty), the ebb-tide of Marine (Seascape) and the shimmering, vaporous reclothings of Being Beauteous bind a Parade of droles tres solides. From O le plus violenl Paradis de la grimace enragee! (Oh the most violent Paradise of furious grimace!), with its accompanying demons, to the spent submission of the final setting, Depart (Leaving). Yet the deliberately enigmatic tone of this cycle is underpinned, and to a degree even explained by the recurrence of the lines l' ai seulla clef de cette parade sauvage (I alone have the key to this savage parade) in the final stanza of Parade. Opposing chords of B flat and E fmally resolving into C major, with the lingering B flat still felt, give especial piquancy and mystery to Fanfare, and how telling is Britten's cross-referencing in Parade, when the soloist again reminds us that he alone holds the secret to this illusory world, and the comedie magnetique (magnetic comedy) played out by its inhabitants.


Britten's return to England in 1942 following his attempted emigration to the United States heralded one of the most productive periods of his career. Though having planned from the outset to devote himself fully to the creation of his first full-scale operatic venture Peter Grimes, there were inevitably delays as work continued on the libretto, and it was during one such period that Brit ten began to sketch one of his most moving works, the Serenadefor tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31. The prodigiously gifted 21-year old horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, whose life would be tragically curtailed by a fatal car accident in 1957, had approached the composer requesting a new work for his instrument. 1942, incidentally, would be an important one for horn literature. The near-octogenarian Richard Strauss was writing the second of his horn concertos at much the same time as Benjamin Brit ten formulated the inspired idea of combining a work for not just one, but two great artists, the other being the tenor Peter Pears, the composer's companion and inspiration since the mid-1930s.


The outcome, not a horn concerto, but a song-cycle for tenor, horn and string orchestra, in which the singer takes his cue from the solo instrument, was at once unprecedented and triumphantly effective. The innocent ear cannot fail to be deeply struck by this unearthly symbiotic alliance between apparently unrelated protagonists; once conjoined with visionary and profoundly moving lines from a series of the greatest British poets, Britten's Serenade unifies seemingly disparate forces with uncommon ease. Yet should the juxtaposition necessarily strike us as unorthodox, given what we all know about the apparent attraction of opposites? After all, has not the horn been both talisman of romantic yearning and, as Strauss reminds us, a touchstone of heroism since its invention? in any case, its place together with lyric-romantic dialogue had been assured since the first tremors of Weber's seminal romantic opera Der Freischiitz began to be felt throughout Europe over a century earlier. indeed, something of Weber's atmosphere of mystery is conveyed by the natural horn's eerie, disembodied harmonics sounded during the opening Prologue. A mood of submissive decline informs the setting of Pastoral, to lines by Charles Cotton (1630-1687), as the tenor's opening phrases are echoed by downwardly inclined figurations anticipating not just the fall of autumn's leaf, but evincing wider intimations of the fragility of mortal man himself. Tennyson's poetic depiction of a long-deserted citadel finds the singer responding to the horn's distant, whispered evocations of the past:

The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying…


and the dying echo in response, Then follows the troubling portrayal of death transmuted in the image of evil at the heart of a dying rose, in a setting of the Elegy by William Blake and the grimly implacable Dirge, a funeral march of mounting intensity to an anonymous fifteenth century text, Then comes Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, chaste and fair, to rekindle the life-force itself in lively exchanges between voice and horn in Ben Jonson's Hymn, Finally it is sleep, soft embalmer of the still midnight, which brings the cycle toward its enraptured conclusion, with a setting of a Sonnet by John Keats. With the horn silent for the moment, the tenor declaims the text in quasi-recitative fashion, invoking the powers of Morpheus which, at close of day:

Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,

And seal the hushed casket of my soul


The work closes with an epilogue for the horn alone, now off-stage, using as at the beginning the notes of the natural horn, a moving and poignant echo of that mysterious fanfare, all the more effective through the use of the less usual pitches that are a feature of the true harmonic series.


There are moments in Britten's Serenade that suggest something of what was to come in the opera Peter Grimes, and something similar applies with his last orchestral song-cycle, Nocturne. Written in 1958, these eight settings for voice, seven obligato instruments, flute, cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp and timpani, with strings seems even more inextricably linked to the exotic world of Britten's Shakespearian opera A Midsummer Night's Dream of 1960. The cycle runs continuously, and it should be noted that the texts themselves take the form of excerpts from larger, complete works. The blissful dream-state of the opera itself, moreover, is distilled in microcosm, becoming the most palpably sensed, yet physically indeterminate feature of the cycle and, as Peter Evans has shown, internal key relationships, such as the strivings toward C major and the serene final resolution on D flat, heighten the melismatic imagery and inner flow of the score, Thus it is that, by the close the other world is finally attained with the semitone rise to D flat, reflecting the sentiments of Shakespeare's Sonnet XUII:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me


Other sources include Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, lines from Tennyson's The Kraken, with aptly Leviathan bassoon obligato, The Wanderings of Cain by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with harp obligato, Blurt, Master Constable by Thomas Middleton, with horn obligato, an excerpt from Wordsworth's poem The Prelude, with timpani obligato, The Kind Ghosts by Wilfred Owen with cor anglais obligato and Sleep and Poetry by John Keats. In this last, flute and clarinet take over the usual accompaniment from the strings, in a setting which again heightens the rhapsodic quality of the perfection of a C major resolution, reached through unexpected means at the words What, but thee, Sleep? Soft closer of our eyes. That Britten dedicated the score of his last orchestral song-cycle to Mahler's widow Alma seems singularly fitting. Perhaps no other composer, with the exception of Schubert, who, after all, wrote nothing for voice and orchestra in this context, explored the genre with comparable eloquence, proving that the deepest of morbid human fears are constantly tempered by man's desire to glimpse ultimate goodness. For Britten, as indeed for Wagner before him, the fountain-head of such ultimate self- knowledge still remained dormant, yet to be fully explored in his works for the operatic stage.


Michael Jameson


Close the window