About this Recording
8.557204 - BRITTEN / BERKELEY: Auden Songs
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) • Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) • Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)

Settings of Poems by W.H. Auden


Benjamin Britten’s post-war pre-eminence as an opera composer has tended to overshadow the considerable achievements of his earlier years. Between his official Opus 1, the Sinfonietta of 1932, written when he was nineteen, and the completion of Peter Grimes in 1945, he was fluently and prolifically writing works in every genre, many of which remain far too little known even today. Among these are five major works involving texts written or devised by the poet W.H.Auden: the song cycles Our Hunting Fathers (1936) and On This Island (1937), the choral and orchestral Ballad of Heroes (1939), the operetta Paul Bunyan (completed in 1941), and the choral Hymn to St Cecilia (1942). In addition, Britten set a number of other poems by Auden during this period which remained unpublished during his lifetime and which are included on this disc.


Britten and Auden first met in July 1935 when they were both working for the GPO Film Unit, an organization dedicated to the making of educational documentary films. Auden became one of the major influences on the young composer and while Britten confessed to being somewhat intimidated by Auden’s brilliant intellect, it was undoubtedly a partnership of mutual admiration and respect. Their first collaboration was for the film Coal Face in 1935, soon followed by Night Mail in the following year. It was the success of the latter in particular that encouraged the two men to embark on projects of a more substantial nature and in 1936 Auden devised the text for one of Britten’s most important early works, described by the composer as his real Op.1, the orchestral song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers. It was soon after the première of that work at the 1936 Norfolk and Norwich Festival that Britten acquired a copy of a newly published volume of Auden’s poetry entitled Look, Stranger!, two poems from which, Underneath the abject willow and Night covers up the rigid land, were dedicated to him. He set the first of these in November 1936 as the second of his Two Ballads for two voices and piano. During May and October of the following year, he completed eight further settings, five of which were selected for the cycle On This Island, Op.11, for solo voice and piano, first performed in November 1937 at a BBC contemporary music concert by the soprano Sophie Wyss and the composer. The score was published by Boosey & Hawkes in October 1938 and originally designated ‘Vol.1’: it seems likely that Britten intended to use the three remaining settings in a second volume which never materialised.


On This Island was Britten’s first published group of songs with piano. The set is conceived more as a sequence of self-contained vignettes, perhaps reflecting the recent experience of writing the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, rather than attempting the quasi-symphonic unity of Our Hunting Fathers. They are also notably simpler in their relatively orthodox approach to word-setting and use of more traditional harmony. Perhaps the most striking song is the fourth, Nocturne, which with its daring reliance on the most economical of musical means sounds perhaps the most personal note in the work and anticipates the inspired simplicities found in such later cycles as Les Illuminations and the Michelangelo Sonnets.


In January 1938, Britten completed another setting of a poem from Look, Stranger!, Fish in the unruffled lakes, which was subsequently published in 1947. Two further settings, What’s in your mind and a new solo-voice version of Underneath the abject willow were written during the early 1940s, but remained in manuscript. These songs, along with the unused settings from 1937, were finally published by Boosey & Hawkes under the title Fish in the Unruffled Lakes: Six settings of W.H.Auden in 1997. Underneath the abject willow is particularly noteworthy as the text is dedicated to Britten and is clearly Auden’s invitation for his younger friend to break his natural reticence and abandon himself to the pleasures of the flesh. Yet Britten’s jaunty setting of this text is remarkably impersonal, as if the message is being deliberately misunderstood. The two versions Britten made differ primarily in their accompaniments, the later solo-voice version being simpler and more direct in effect, but the strangely detached impression remains the same in both.


The Four Cabaret Songs, composed between 1937 and 1939 but not published until 1980, reveal another, more light-hearted side to the Britten-Auden creative partnership. These songs were written for Hedli Anderson, a singer specialising in high quality ‘light music’ who had played the part of The Singer in The Ascent of F6, an Auden-Isherwood theatre piece for which Britten had written the incidental music in 1937. The Funeral Blues (also known as Stop all the clocks) was in fact originally written for this production when it was sung by a choir accompanied by two pianos and percussion, but later reworked in a version for solo voice and piano. Tell me the truth about love and Johnny are obviously influenced by the popular hits of the day (à la Cole Porter), while the onomatopoeic train noises of Calypso, the last to be composed, clearly point forward to Midnight on the Great Western from Britten’s Thomas Hardy cycle Winter Words of 1953. In much the same lighter vein is the very brief When you’re feeling like expressing your affection, probably written in 1935 for a GPO promotional film encouraging the use of public telephone boxes.


Britten had met Lennox Berkeley during the mid-1930s and during this period, the two men were on close terms. They shared Britten’s home at the Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk, for a time, collaborated on an orchestral suite on Catalan folk tunes, Mont Juic in 1937, and in 1938, Britten dedicated his recently composed Piano Concerto to Berkeley. It is probable that Berkeley came into contact with Auden’s poetry through Britten as his first Auden settings, Night covers up the rigid land and Lay your sleeping head, my love (both recorded here) date from this time. The latter was another poem that Auden had dedicated to Britten, but which Britten never set (Berkeley, following Auden’s lead, dedicated his setting ‘To B.B.’). Berkeley’s setting of Night covers up the rigid land is more pensive and static than Britten’s, capturing the mood of the poem and sustaining it throughout, rather than following the more developmental treatment preferred by his younger colleague.


Berkeley returned to Auden for his Five Poems, Op. 53, composed in 1958. Interestingly, all except the first song, Lauds, which Auden wrote in 1952, had been previously set by Britten. Carry her over the water features in the second act of Paul Bunyan, where it forms the wedding song for Slim and Tiny. Though it is unlikely that Berkeley would have known Britten’s setting (Paul Bunyan was withdrawn after its first run of performances in New York and not revived until 1974), the resemblances between the two settings, such as the compound-time rhythm and the threefold repetition on the word ‘agreeably’, are striking. In these beautiful songs, Berkeley reveals himself to be as sensitive as Britten in his response to a text, in his ability to mould words and music into a strongly unified and affecting listening experience.


Lloyd Moore

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