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8.557206 - BRITTEN: Illuminations (Les) / Our Hunting Fathers / Chansons Francaises
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Orchestral Song-Cycles • 1
Les Illuminations • Our Hunting Fathers • Quatre Chansons Françaises

The medium of the orchestral song-cycle is one that much attracted Britten. His concept of an anthology of sometimes diverse texts, unified by a common literary or poetic theme was a favourite device to which he returned several times. Although there had been several distinguished precedents in the genre - by Berlioz, Ravel and Elgar among others - it seems likely that Britten’s main influence was Mahler, whose own examples of the form Britten is known to have greatly admired. To the four mature song-cycles with orchestra - Our Hunting Fathers, Les Illuminations, Serenade and Nocturne - should also be added a fifth, the very early Quatre Chansons Françaises, unpublished and unperformed during Britten’s lifetime, but posthumously unearthed revealing a work of astonishing technical assurance and an impressively mature and sensitive approach to wordsetting. These songs, ‘dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. R.V. Britten on the twenty-seventh aniversary [sic] of their wedding’, as the title-page of the manuscript score reads, were composed during the summer of 1928 when Britten was a schoolboy of just fourteen. In October of the previous year he had begun private composition lessons with Frank Bridge, whose cosmopolitan musical outlook, unusual among elder British composers of the time, opened the young Britten’s ears to the latest musical trends coming from the continent. In any case it is perhaps understandable, given that the texts are in French, that the young composer should appropriate the textures and sonorities of contemporary French music, Debussy and Ravel in particular. Britten’s youthful enthusiasm for Wagner is also revealed at the end of the fourth song, Chanson d’Automne, whose closing bars virtually paraphrase the ending of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The harmonic idiom of the first song, Nuits de Juin, shows another more unexpected and yet more lasting influence, that of Alban Berg; but in the light of the composer’s subsequent development, it is perhaps the third song, L’enfance, that is the most notable: Hugo’s poem tells of a child playing outside the house while inside his mother lies dying. The theme of childhood innocence in the context of death is familiar from many later Britten works and the quasi-dramatic setting (the child’s play is represented by the solo flute’s fragments of a traditional French nursery tune, Ah! tu sortiras, Biquette) suggests the opera composer to come.

The world première of the Quatre Chansons Françaises was not given until June 1980, when Heather Harper performed them at the Aldeburgh Festival with Steuart Bedford conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. That they were never performed during the composer’s lifetime is perhaps not surprising. Britten’s style was developing at such a rate at this time that he must have felt that the derivative (if highly accomplished) musical language of these songs was quickly redundant. Indeed, despite his compositional fluency and facility, Britten’s path towards establishing an individual voice was long and hard, and it was only with the Sinfonietta of 1932 that he finally wrote a work he deemed worthy of the designation of his official ‘opus 1’.

Three years later, in July 1935, Britten met the poet W.H. Auden when both men were working for the GPO Film Unit, an organization dedicated to the making of educational documentary films. 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, his ‘symphonic cycle for high voice and orchestra’ Our Hunting Fathers, composed between May and July 1936. That Britten himself viewed the work as something of a breakthrough is confirmed by his describing it in a diary entry as ‘my op.1 alright’. The work had been commissioned by the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival and was first performed there in September 1936 by the soprano Sophie Wyss with Britten himself conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The work was not a success, however: the audience and critics seemed baffled and, one suspects, somewhat scandalised by the work and it failed to enter the repertoire. Indeed, apart from a BBC broadcast performance conducted by Adrian Boult the following year, it was not heard again until 1950. Even today, it is seldom to be heard in the concert-hall and must qualify as one of the most neglected of Britten’s major works.

It is impossible to assess Our Hunting Fathers adequately without knowing something of the turbulent historical and political background of the period in which it was written. Both Auden and Britten were (at this time at least) socially conscious artists, committed to the idea of the artist-in-society and actively engaged with the political issues of the day. The diaries that Britten kept during this period reflect his concern at developing world events: the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and alarm at the rising tide of Fascism in Europe. These factors undoubtedly played a significant part in the conception and composition of Our Hunting Fathers, ostensibly a song-cycle about man’s relationship with animals, but also, by extension, about man’s relationship with man.

After the recitative-like Prologue, during which the work’s musical motto of a descending major triad climbing back to the minor third is introduced (at the line ‘O pride so hostile to our charity’), Rats Away! comes as a complete contrast with its shrill, wiry scoring and virtuoso vocal pyrotechnics. The wild orchestral flourishes, no doubt representing the scurrying rodents on the move, gradually infest and finally swamp the soprano’s attempt to exorcise the place by prayer (‘Et in Nomine (Rats!) Patris’ etc.). Messalina’s lament for her dead monkey contains the most overtly lyrical music in the work, culminating in an impassioned climax on the word ‘Fie’ which gradually winds down by way of a striking series of solos for flute, oboe, clarinet and saxophone in turn (the latter anticipating Britten’s elegiac use of this instrument, shorn of its jazz connotations, in the Sinfonia da Requiem and the scene of the novice’s flogging in Billy Budd). The third movement, Hawking for the Partridge (subtitled Dance of Death) follows on without a break, the soprano quietly but excitedly reciting the names of the hounds participating in the hunt, along with a whooping figure set to the words ‘Hey dogs hey!’ which features prominently in the furious orchestral interlude that forms the climax of the movement (and of the work as a whole). The catch itself is marked by a fortissimo unison on the muted brass, after which the soprano isolates the two names ‘German, Jew’, signifying unambiguously who is the hunter and who the hunted. The eloquent phrases of the concluding Epilogue and Funeral March are continually interrupted by a drily banal pattern on the xylophone (calling to mind another key influence, Shostakovich) whose impassive repetitions bring the cycle to a disconcertingly equivocal and inconclusive end.

In the summer of 1939 Britten left what he felt to be the artistically uncongenial atmosphere of England in search of a new life and fresh opportunities in America. The extraordinarily liberating effect this move had on his work is witnessed by the sheer number of substantial scores he composed or completed within just over a year of his arrival: the Violin Concerto, Young Apollo, Canadian Carnival, Sinfonia da Requiem, Diversions, the Michelangelo Sonnets, and his third orchestral songcycle, Les Illuminations for high voice and strings, for which Britten turned to the French symbolist poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. The work was completed in October 1939 and first performed in January 1940 at the Aeolian Hall in London, again by Sophie Wyss, the work’s dedicatee, with the Boyd Neel Orchestra, who two years earlier had commissioned and given the first performance of the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge in which Britten had demonstrated his mastery of string orchestral technique. Of perhaps greater relevance to Les Illuminations, however, is the ‘fanfare’ for piano and strings that Britten had written earlier that year, Young Apollo, Op.16, whose bold reliance on pure triadic harmony is also a conspicuous feature of the song-cycle. The opening movement of Les Illuminations juxtaposes fanfare-like B flat and E major arpeggios on the first violins and violas, reaching a climax in the soloist’s entry with the work’s recurrent refrain, ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’. Villes employs chains of triads a third apart to evoke the vivid excitement of a city metropolis at night. The bell-like harmonics of Phrase culminate in a luminous chord of B flat major in preparation for the following song, Antique, a slow dance with a strummed accompaniment from violas and cellos played ‘like a guitar’ (this particular setting is dedicated to Wulff Scherchen, with whom Britten had enjoyed a close friendship in the months leading up to his departure for the States). The mockpomp of Royauté and bright, energetic seascape of Marine are followed, after the central Interlude, by the cycle’s longest setting, Being Beauteous, which again uses unsullied triads to symbolize a state of natural perfection and beauty (significantly, this song is dedicated ‘to P.N.L.P’, i.e. to Peter Neville Luard Pears). Parade, on the other hand, is a ghostly but incisive march which culminates in the soloist’s third and final declamation of the motto theme. The final Départ, however, returns to the more private, interior world that, after the urgent topicality of Our Hunting Fathers, would in future come to characterize some of Britten’s best and most distinctive works including his two later orchestral song-cycles, the Serenade and the Nocturne.

Lloyd Moore

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