About this Recording
8.572706 - BRITTEN, B.: Scottish Songs (Complete) - A Birthday Hansel / Who are these Children? / 4 Burns Songs (Wilde, Wakeford, Norris)

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Britten in Scotland: The Complete Scottish Settings


The music and poetry of Scotland, like the Scottish people, has a two-fold origin. The first and oldest music of Scotland is that of the Highlands which has come down from the dim and shadowy period of early tradition, rather than from authentic history. The great bulk of Highland song and ballad music is written in minor keys and is more adapted to be sung to the harp, rather than the bagpipes, or the piano. In the nineteenth century Highland music became rare in the Highlands because of emigration, voluntary or compulsory, to the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

The music of the Lowlands is that of a people who are more largely descended from Saxon, Danish and Scandinavian, than from Celtic ancestors. It differs from that of the Highlands, and is of another order of beauty. The Highlanders borrowed none of their melodies from the Lowlanders, but the Lowlanders borrowed so many from the Highlanders that perhaps as many as half the current Scottish tunes had their origin among the Gael.

Benjamin Britten wrote few solo songs (apart from his many folk-song arrangements) but his song cycles have enriched the vocal repertory so prolifically. Although some of the cycles feature voice and orchestra, none of the songs with piano, except for the folk-songs, was later provided with an orchestral accompaniment. Britten’s unrivalled gifts as a pianist and an accompanist meant that his piano accompaniments needed no further enhancement.

A Birthday Hansel, Op. 92, is a set of seven songs, to words by Robert Burns. It was composed in 1975 and received its first performance on 16 January 1976 at Uphall, the home, near Sandringham, of Ruth, Lady Fermoy. The cycle was composed to celebrate the 75th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and in honour of the Royal dedicatee’s Scottish ancestry the words are in Scottish dialect. Appropriately, for the occasion, the word “hansel” means a welcome gift or present. The performers were the tenor Peter Pears and harpist Osian Ellis and the audience for the first performance, as well as the dedicatee, included Her Majesty the Queen, Princess Margaret, Lady Fermoy, Benjamin Britten and Rita Thomson (Britten’s nurse).

A Celtic atmosphere pervades the cycle with the use of characteristic inflexions of traditional Scottish folk and dance music. The harp provides more than a simple accompaniment with a wide range of devices and effects which complement the character of each song. The harp provides the necessary transition from song to song as the cycle is performed as a continuous piece of music. It is hoped and assumed that the dedicatee was not taken aback by the words “auld birkie” in the opening song. The final song is marked “wild” and is splendidly vigorous and reel-like—and makes no concession to the ages of the dedicatee, the singer or the composer. This was Britten’s final song-cycle.

After Britten’s death, Colin Matthews arranged four numbers for voice and piano and they were published, separately, as Four Burns Songs. They are included on this recording so that a direct comparison can be made.

Who are these children?, Op. 84, is a cycle of twelve settings from a poem of the same name by William Soutar (1898–1943). It was composed in the summer of 1969 and dedicated to Tertia Liebenthal for her 700th National Gallery of Scotland Concert. It received its first complete performance in Edinburgh, by Pears and Britten, in May 1971, in her memory. In a sense the work can be viewed as two cycles in one: the innocent children’s songs and the songs of the world of war and pain. Soutar’s poem was written in 1941 and his “lyrics, rhymes and riddles” acted as inspiration for Britten to revert to the ‘protest’ songs of his youth. 1969 was the time of student riots, Vietnam and Northern Ireland.

The protest songs, Nos. 3, 6, 9 and 11 in the cycle, are in English and interspersed among the shorter dialect songs, of which Britten originally set eleven. (The additional three songs are included as tracks 28 to 30. It was Britten’s wish that they should be performed as separate songs and were not to be incorporated into the cycle itself). Hunting-calls in the ninth song and the wailing of air-raid sirens are the most obvious examples of Britten’s unerring ability to imitate, musically, “everyday” sounds. The tension is sustained throughout up to the devastation of the final song, The Auld Aik (The old oak’s down). The last words from the poem are “But noo it’s doun, doun”, but Britten added a final “doun” and, perhaps with a degree of prescience or presentiment, said to Graham Johnson, the accompanist, in 1971 that “it really is down, you see; it’s the end of everything.”

This was the last song cycle that Britten wrote for himself and Peter Pears to perform. Fortunately they were able to record it in November 1972, six months before Britten’s stroke put an end to his pianistic career.

Unlike several composers, Britten was not a collector as such of folk-songs. He began to make arrangements when he was living in the United States in the early 1940s, and may have been inspired by a sense of isolation from Britain or have wanted repertoire that would bring a popular element into his recitals with Peter Pears.

Because he was not a “collector”, he was not restrained by having to be “authentic” and his creative genius had a free rein. He was able to experiment and there are many examples in the eight volumes that were published of Britten’s very personal stamp being placed on familiar melodies. The eight volumes are made up of five for voice and piano, an additional collection of previously unpublished settings which appeared in 2001, and one volume each for voice and guitar and voice and harp. The settings included on this recording span the period from late 1942 until the late spring of 1976, The Bonny Earl o’ Moray [25] and Bonny at Morn [26]. These arrangements show that Britten’s creative genius could transform what are basically simple melodies into works that repay repeated hearings, from which something new emerges every time.

O that I’d ne’er been married is an example of Britten’s juvenilia, written about 1922, taking the character of a parlour song. The setting of Louis MacNeice’s Cradle Song, Sleep, my darling sleep, was composed in September 1942, although its first performance was not until 15 June 1992. The Ulster Scots poet, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was probably known to Britten through a common friendship with his schoolfellow W. H. Auden. Very much in the style of the Cabaret Songs, it is more than probable that it was also written to be performed by Hedli Anderson, who married MacNeice in July 1942.

© 2011 Chris Ball

Performer’s Note

When preparing and researching for this recording, I became aware of the differences in source material of the poetry of Robert Burns. It would appear that Britten possessed a fairly old edition of Burns’ poetry when he set A Birthday Hansel, possibly Victorian or Edwardian. Some of the words may have been anglicised by the compiler or editor who perhaps thought that some of the more obscure Scots words would narrow the appeal of the publication. We have, of course, respected Britten’s settings and performed A Birthday Hansel as he set it. However, with Colin Matthews’ piano arrangements, Four Burns Songs, we have reverted to the perhaps more authentic versions of the poetry as published in The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns Bi-Centenary Edition Completely Revised, edited by Dr James A Mackay (Alloway Publishing, 1993).

© 2011 Mark Wilde

Close the window