BRITTEN: Folk Song Arrangements, Vol. 2
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Folk Song Arrangements 2
Benjamin Britten occupies an unrivalled position inEnglish music of the twentieth century and a place of thegreatest importance in the wider musical world. WhileElgar was in some ways part of late nineteenth-centuryGerman romantic tradition, Britten avoided the trapoffered by musical nationalism and the insular debt tofolk-music of his older compatriots, while profiting fromthat tradition in a much wider European context. He maybe seen as following in part a path mapped out byMahler. He possessed a special gift for word-setting andvocal writing, a facility that Purcell had shown and thatwas the foundation of a remarkable series of operas thatbrought English opera for the first time into internationalrepertoire. Tonal in his musical language, he knew wellhow to use inventively, imaginatively, and, above all,musically, techniques that in other hands often seemedarid. His work owed much to the friendship and constantcompanionship of the singer Peter Pears, for whomBritten wrote many of his principal operatic r??les andwhose qualities of voice and intelligence clearly had amarked effect on his vocal writing.
Born in the East Anglian seaside town of Lowestoftin 1913, Britten showed early gifts as a composer,studying with Frank Bridge before a less fruitful time atthe Royal College of Music in London. His associationwith the poet W.H.Auden, with whom he undertookvarious collaborations, was in part behind his departurewith Pears in 1939 for the United States, whereopportunities seemed plentiful, away from the pettyjealousies and inhibitions of his own country. Theoutbreak of war brought its own difficulties. Britten andPears were firmly pacifist in their views, but wereequally horrified at the excesses of National Socialismand sufferings that the war brought. Britten's nostalgiafor his native country and region led to their return toEngland in 1942, when they rejected the easy option ofnominal military service as musicians in uniform infavour of overt pacifism, but were able to give concertsand recitals, often in difficult circumstances, offeringencouragement to those who heard them. The reopeningof Sadler's Wells and the staging of Britten'sopera Peter Grimes started a new era in English opera.
The English Opera Group was founded and a series ofchamber operas followed, with larger scale works thatestablished Britten as a composer of the highest stature,a position recognised shortly before his early death byhis elevation to the peerage, the first English composerever to be so honoured.
It was in some sense a certain nostalgia that laybehind Britten's many folk-song arrangements. He had aparticular gift for bringing out the qualities implicit in amelody and text, something displayed to admirableeffect in his version of The Beggar's Opera. The first setof songs from the British Isles was published in 1943,and further sets were published in the following years.
The last set of arrangements were made in the lastsummer of Britten's life. His health had deteriorated anda heart operation in 1973, during which he had a slightstroke, prevented any further piano performance. In1973 he had summoned all his strength towards thecompletion of his last opera, Death in Venice, with itsperceived final great operatic r??le for Peter Pears, that ofAschenbach. With his encouragement Pears hadcollaborated with the pianist Murray Perahia incontinuing recitals, and in 1975 he wrote his fifthcanticle, The Death of St Narcissus, for Pears and theharpist Osian Ellis.
The last Eight Folk Song Arrangements, for highvoice and harp, were also written for Peter Pears andOsian Ellis. Lord! I married me a wife is taken fromEnglish Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians,collected by Cecil Sharp. The very simple tune is set offby the characteristic sonorities of the harp, whichpunctuate the repeated opening words and theconsequences of marriage, in the words 'wife', 'life' and'work'. She's like a swallow comes from Folk Songsfrom Newfoundland, collected by Maud Karpeles, and ispresented with a flowing accompaniment, and Lemady,taken down from a singer in Whitby, is at first given thesparest of accompaniments, filling out in texture as thesong proceeds. The fourth song Bonny at morn, takenfrom the collection Northumbrian Minstrelsie, usescharacteristic fragments of canon. It is followed by twoWelsh folk-songs, Bugeilio'r Gwenith Gwyn, theopening words of which Osian Ellis gives in an Englishsinging version as I was lonely and forlorn, with its harparpeggio accompaniment, and Dafydd y Garreg Wen(David of the White Rock), where Britten again findsscope for canon. The False Knight upon the road is afurther song from Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songsfrom the Southern Appalachians, edited, as before, byMaud Karpeles. It repeats its melody andaccompaniment in its seven verses and repeatedanswers. The set ends with the lively Bird Scarer'sSong, collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset in 1904,graphically illustrated by the harp.
Britten's unaccompanied arrangement of The Hollyand the Ivy was made in 1957 for June Gordon and theHaddo House Choral Society. King Herod and the Cockand The Twelve Apostles are arrangements made in 1962for the London Boy Singers, the first dramaticallyrealised, and the second brought to life by itsimaginative use of the piano. The Bitter Withy, whichwas left unfinished, was written for the same singers,tenor soloist and boys' choir, also with solo voices. It isrecorded as Britten left it, breaking off in the seventhverse.
The volume of arrangements of French songs, thesecond collection, was published in 1946 and dedicatedto Britten's young friends Arnold and Humphrey Gyde,the latter his godson, the children of the singer SophieWyss, who gave the first performances of LesIlluminations and recorded five of the French folk-songarrangements with the composer in 1943. Thearrangements were made at Snape in 1942 and formedpart of the recital repertoire of Pears and Britten. Theorchestrated songs include a hunting-song, with thenecessary suggestions of the hunting-horns, a spinningsong,Fileuse, with apt accompanying figuration, apastoral love-song, a shepherd idyll, and a sad tale froma shepherd-boy, with a haunting refrain. Orchestralarrangements of five of the eight songs were made byBritten, with five of them first performed in Chicago in1948 by the French baritone Martial Singher, the son-inlawof Fritz Busch, who conducted the performance withthe Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A sixth orchestration,of La no?½l passee, was probably made in 1953.
Four of the songs from the first published volume of1943 were orchestrated by the composer for aperformance given in London in December 1942 byPeter Pears with the New London Orchestra, conductedby Alex Sherman. These were a version of The SalleyGardens, an Irish song, with folk-style words byW.B.Yeats, two orchestrations of which exist from thisperiod, one with strings and the other with bassoon, harpand strings, both included here. The second of the set,Little Sir William, is a ballad, its words slightly modifiedin publication to avoid the traditional anti-semitism ofthe text. The poignant Scottish lament for The BonnyEarl o' Moray is followed by a second Scottish tune, Ocan ye sew cushions?, a lullaby, presumablyorchestrated during the same period. The orchestrationsfrom the first book end with the lively Suffolk nurseryrhymeOliver Cromwell. The orchestral arrangements ofThe Plough Boy, O Waly, Waly and Come you not fromNewcastle, from the third published collection, weremade in the 1950s.Keith Anderson