Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Settings of Poems by W.H. Auden
Benjamin Britten's post-war pre-eminence as an operacomposer has tended to overshadow the considerable achievements of his earlieryears. Between his official Opus 1, the Sinfonietta of 1932, written when hewas nineteen, and the completion of Peter Grimes in 1945, he was fluently andprolifically writing works in every genre, many of which remain far too littleknown even today. Among these are five major works involving texts written ordevised by the poet W.H.Auden: the song cycles Our Hunting Fathers (1936) andOn This Island (1937), the choral and orchestral Ballad of Heroes (1939), theoperetta 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 In addition, Britten set a number of other poems by Auden during thisperiod which remained unpublished during his lifetime and which are included onthis disc.
Britten and Auden first met in July 1935 when they were bothworking for the GPO Film Unit, an organization dedicated to the making ofeducational documentary films. Auden became one of the major influences on theyoung composer and while Britten confessed to being somewhat intimidated byAuden's brilliant intellect, it was undoubtedly a partnership of mutualadmiration and respect. Their first collaboration was for the film Coal Face in1935, soon followed by Night Mail in the following year. It was the success ofthe latter in particular that encouraged the two men to embark on projects of amore substantial nature and in 1936 Auden devised the text for one of Britten'smost important early works, described by the composer as his real Op.1, theorchestral song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers. It was soon after the premi?¿re ofthat work at the 1936 Norfolk and Norwich Festival that Britten acquired a copyof a newly published volume of Auden's poetry entitled Look, Stranger!, twopoems from which, Underneath the abject willow and Night covers up the rigidland, were dedicated to him. He set the first of these in November 1936 as thesecond of his Two Ballads for two voices and piano. During May and October ofthe following year, he completed eight further settings, five of which wereselected for the cycle On This Island, Op.11, for solo voice and piano, firstperformed in November 1937 at a BBC contemporary music concert by the soprano SophieWyss and the composer. The score was published by Boosey & Hawkes inOctober 1938 and originally designated 'Vol.1': it seems likely that Brittenintended to use the three remaining settings in a second volume which nevermaterialised.
On This Island was Britten's first published group of songswith piano. The set is conceived more as a sequence of self-containedvignettes, perhaps reflecting the recent experience of writing the Variationson a theme of Frank Bridge, rather than attempting the quasi-symphonic unity ofOur Hunting Fathers. They are also notably simpler in their relatively orthodoxapproach to word-setting and use of more traditional harmony. Perhaps the moststriking song is the fourth, Nocturne, which with its daring reliance on themost economical of musical means sounds perhaps the most personal note in thework and anticipates the inspired simplicities found in such later cycles asLes Illuminations and the Michelangelo Sonnets.
In January 1938, Britten completed another setting of a poemfrom Look, Stranger!, Fish in the unruffled lakes, which was subsequentlypublished in 1947. Two further settings, What's in your mind and a newsolo-voice version of Underneath the abject willow were written during theearly 1940s, but remained in manuscript. These songs, along with the unusedsettings from 1937, were finally published by Boosey & Hawkes under thetitle Fish in the Unruffled Lakes: Six settings of W.H.Auden in 1997.Underneath the abject willow is particularly noteworthy as the text isdedicated to Britten and is clearly Auden's invitation for his younger friendto break his natural reticence and abandon himself to the pleasures of theflesh. Yet Britten's jaunty setting of this text is remarkably impersonal, asif the message is being deliberately misunderstood. The two versions Brittenmade differ primarily in their accompaniments, the later solo-voice versionbeing simpler and more direct in effect, but the strangely detached impressionremains the same in both.
The Four Cabaret Songs, composed between 1937 and 1939 butnot published until 1980, reveal another, more light-hearted side to theBritten-Auden creative partnership. These songs were written for HedliAnderson, a singer specialising in high quality 'light music' who had playedthe part of The Singer in The Ascent of F6, an Auden-Isherwood theatre piecefor 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 thisproduction when it was sung by a choir accompanied by two pianos andpercussion, but later reworked in a version for solo voice and piano. Tell methe truth about love and Johnny are obviously influenced by the popular hits ofthe day (?á la Cole Porter), while the onomatopoeic train noises of Calypso, thelast to be composed, clearly point forward to Midnight on the Great Westernfrom Britten's Thomas Hardy cycle Winter Words of 1953. In much the samelighter vein is the very brief When you're feeling like expressing youraffection, probably written in 1935 for a GPO promotional film encouraging theuse of public telephone boxes.
Britten had met Lennox Berkeley during the mid-1930s andduring this period, the two men were on close terms. They shared Britten's homeat the Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk, for a time, collaborated on an orchestralsuite on Catalan folk tunes, Mont Juic in 1937, and in 1938, Britten dedicatedhis recently composed Piano Concerto to Berkeley. It is probable that Berkeleycame into contact with Auden's poetry through Britten as his first Audensettings, 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 thatAuden had dedicated to Britten, but which Britten never set (Berkeley,following Auden's lead, dedicated his setting 'To B.B.'). Berkeley's setting ofNight covers up the rigid land is more pensive and static than Britten's,capturing the mood of the poem and sustaining it throughout, rather thanfollowing 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 Audenwrote in 1952, had been previously set by Britten. Carry her over the waterfeatures in the second act of Paul Bunyan, where it forms the wedding song forSlim and Tiny. Though it is unlikely that Berkeley would have known Britten'ssetting (Paul Bunyan was withdrawn after its first run of performances in New Yorkand not revived until 1974), the resemblances between the two settings, such asthe compound-time rhythm and the threefold repetition on the word 'agreeably',are striking. In these beautiful songs, Berkeley reveals himself to be assensitive as Britten in his response to a text, in his ability to mould wordsand music into a strongly unified and affecting listening experience.