|About this Recording
8.557201 - BRITTEN: 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo / Holy Sonnets of J. Donne / Winter Words (English Song, Vol. 7)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Winter Words • The Holy Sonnets of John Donne • Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo
Britten’s song cycles, whether for voice and orchestra, piano, harp or guitar, form a substantial and important part of his work. The three cycles on this recording span the years 1940 to 1953, an astonishingly productive and fertile period for Britten that saw the completion of no fewer than eight operas (if one includes Paul Bunyan and The Little Sweep), as well as several other by no means insubstantial scores such as the Spring Symphony, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Saint Nicolas, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and the first and second String Quartets. The cycles are linked inasmuch as all three were expressly written with the voice of Peter Pears in mind. This specific intention, however, does not seem to have deterred other singers from rising to the challenges they present and the Michelangelo and Hardy cycles especially have become some of the most frequently performed of all twentieth-century English song cycles.
The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22, were completed in October 1940 during Pears and Britten’s three-year stay in America, though the first performance was not given until September 1942 at the Wigmore Hall in London. In 1939 Britten had set the French symbolist poetry of Arthur Rimbaud in his Les Illuminations for high voice and strings, one of his most mature and fully achieved works to that date. It was the success of this that must have encouraged him to meet the challenge of setting texts in languages other than English. In the Michelangelo Sonnets it could be said that he came of age as a song composer. It was the first work that Britten composed exclusively for Pears and it is significant that all seven poems deal with various aspects of love. The settings are widely and effectively contrasted around this general theme; the first is dominated by an obsessive figure in the piano which throws the tenor’s broad melodic line into relief; the third song is based on one of those Britten ideas that appears so simple as to court banality, but instead succeeds in conveying a fundamental essence. As in the later Donne and Hardy cycles, Britten contrives to make the final song a cumulative statement, retrospectively summing up all that has gone before using relatively simple musical means: in the concluding Sonnet XXIV, the piano’s ascending bass solemnly introduces the descending sequences of the tenor’s unaccompanied Spirto ben nato. Voice and piano are united before the end, but it is the piano that has the last word, rounding off the cycle in a serene glow of D major.
Britten’s next cycle for voice for piano, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op. 35, is markedly different in tone and overall mood. It was written in August 1945 in the wake of the highly successful première of Peter Grimes, soon after Britten had returned from a tour of German concentration camps with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The cycle certainly seems to capture some of the bleak intensity of that experience, but it was also a time when Britten was increasingly preoccupied with the music of one of his favourite composers, Purcell, whose death was being commemorated in the year this cycle was composed (the influence of Purcell is to be found in other works from this period such as the String Quartet No.2 and, most obviously, the orchestral variations of The Young Person’s Guide). In the Donne settings the influence can be felt primarily in the declamatory vocal style and moments of neo-Baroque rhetoric, while the debt is made explicit in the Purcellian ground-bass of the final song, Death, be not proud. The somewhat feverish, relentless quality of this cycle is relaxed only in the sixth song, the beautiful Since she whom I lov’d, the gentle melodic contours and preponderance of warm diatonic harmony of which contrasts sharply with the emotional urgency of the rest of the work.
The eight settings of Thomas Hardy, Winter Words, Op. 52, were written in 1953 in between labours on the operas Gloriana and The Turn of the Screw. While in no way sacrificing the abundance of musical invention and imagery found in the earlier cycles, the textures are generally leaner and more economical with the result that the text is projected with particular clarity. Among the many riches to be found in this masterly work are the train-whistle noises in Midnight on the Great Western which also come to symbolise the “world unknown” that the journeying boy is travelling towards. In The Choirmaster’s Burial (or The tenor man’s story), the departed master’s favourite hymn-tune Mount Ephraim is woven through the texture (though characteristically re-harmonized in parallel triads) with the magical moment when the tenor ushers in the ghostly graveyard appearance of “the band all in white”. In At the Railway Station, Upway (or The convict and boy with the violin), the piano part is imaginatively conceived as if it were a solo fiddle part with a particularly telling use of musical irony when the handcuffed convict breaks into song at the line “This life so free”, trapped within the confines of an implacably reiterated C major chord. The cycle concludes with one of Britten’s most impressive songs, Before life and after. The impassively repeated triads in the pianist’s left hand coupled with the bare octaves above seem, on the face of it, to be a crudely unsophisticated device, but Britten uses this studied simplicity to symbolise a state of uncorrupted, primeval innocence “before the birth of consciousness, when all went well”. In this final song, Britten’s favourite theme of the corruption of innocence by experience seems to be powerfully and movingly distilled.
It was fairly common when Britten was working on a song cycle for various settings to be considered for possible inclusion, some of which reached an advanced state of completion but ultimately came to be discarded when the final form of the work was reached. The composition of Winter Words yielded two such extra settings, If it’s ever Spring again and The Children and Sir Nameless, both of which are recorded here. While Britten clearly felt that they were not needed in the collected publication, they are nevertheless enjoyable and distinctive, as well as offering a valuable and fascinating insight into what might be termed the composer’s creative refinery.
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