BRITTEN: Illuminations (Les) / Our Hunting Fathers / Chansons Francaises (English Chamber Orchestra/ Felicity Lott/ John H. West/ Phyllis Bryn-Julson/ Steuart Bedford) (Naxos: 8.557206)
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Orchestral Song-Cycles 1
Les Illuminations Our Hunting Fathers Quatre Chansons Fran?ºaises
The medium of the orchestral song-cycle is one thatmuch attracted Britten. His concept of an anthology ofsometimes diverse texts, unified by a common literary orpoetic theme was a favourite device to which hereturned several times. Although there had been severaldistinguished precedents in the genre - by Berlioz, Raveland Elgar among others - it seems likely that Britten'smain influence was Mahler, whose own examples of theform Britten is known to have greatly admired. To thefour mature song-cycles with orchestra - Our HuntingFathers, Les Illuminations, Serenade and Nocturne -should also be added a fifth, the very early QuatreChansons Fran?ºaises, unpublished and unperformedduring Britten's lifetime, but posthumously unearthedrevealing a work of astonishing technical assurance andan impressively mature and sensitive approach to wordsetting.
These songs, 'dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. R.V.
Britten on the twenty-seventh aniversary [sic] of theirwedding', as the title-page of the manuscript scorereads, were composed during the summer of 1928 whenBritten was a schoolboy of just fourteen. In October ofthe previous year he had begun private compositionlessons with Frank Bridge, whose cosmopolitan musicaloutlook, unusual among elder British composers of thetime, opened the young Britten's ears to the latestmusical trends coming from the continent. In any case itis perhaps understandable, given that the texts are inFrench, that the young composer should appropriate thetextures and sonorities of contemporary French music,Debussy and Ravel in particular. Britten's youthfulenthusiasm for Wagner is also revealed at the end of thefourth song, Chanson d'Automne, whose closing barsvirtually paraphrase the ending of the Liebestod fromTristan und Isolde. The harmonic idiom of the first song,Nuits de Juin, shows another more unexpected and yetmore lasting influence, that of Alban Berg; but in thelight of the composer's subsequent development, it isperhaps the third song, L'enfance, that is the mostnotable: Hugo's poem tells of a child playing outside thehouse while inside his mother lies dying. The theme ofchildhood innocence in the context of death is familiarfrom many later Britten works and the quasi-dramaticsetting (the child's play is represented by the solo flute'sfragments of a traditional French nursery tune, Ah! tusortiras, Biquette) suggests the opera composer to come.
The world premi?¿re of the Quatre ChansonsFran?ºaises was not given until June 1980, when HeatherHarper performed them at the Aldeburgh Festival withSteuart Bedford conducting the English ChamberOrchestra. That they were never performed during thecomposer's lifetime is perhaps not surprising. Britten'sstyle was developing at such a rate at this time that hemust have felt that the derivative (if highlyaccomplished) musical language of these songs wasquickly redundant. Indeed, despite his compositionalfluency and facility, Britten's path towards establishingan individual voice was long and hard, and it was onlywith the Sinfonietta of 1932 that he finally wrote a workhe deemed worthy of the designation of his official'opus 1'.
Three years later, in July 1935, Britten met the poetW.H. Auden when both men were working for the GPOFilm Unit, an organization dedicated to the making ofeducational documentary films. Their first collaborationwas for the film Coal Face in 1935, soon followed byNight Mail in the following year. It was the success ofthe latter in particular that encouraged the two men toembark on projects of a more substantial nature, and in1936 Auden devised the text for one of Britten's mostimportant early works, his 'symphonic cycle for highvoice and orchestra' Our Hunting Fathers, composedbetween May and July 1936. That Britten himselfviewed the work as something of a breakthrough isconfirmed by his describing it in a diary entry as 'myop.1 alright'. The work had been commissioned by theNorfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival and was firstperformed there in September 1936 by the sopranoSophie Wyss with Britten himself conducting theLondon Philharmonic Orchestra. The work was not asuccess, however: the audience and critics seemedbaffled and, one suspects, somewhat scandalised by thework and it failed to enter the repertoire. Indeed, apartfrom a BBC broadcast performance conducted byAdrian Boult the following year, it was not heard againuntil 1950. Even today, it is seldom to be heard in theconcert-hall and must qualify as one of the mostneglected of Britten's major works.
It is impossible to assess Our Hunting Fathersadequately without knowing something of the turbulenthistorical and political background of the period inwhich it was written. Both Auden and Britten were (atthis time at least) socially conscious artists, committedto the idea of the artist-in-society and actively engagedwith the political issues of the day. The diaries thatBritten kept during this period reflect his concern atdeveloping world events: the outbreak of the SpanishCivil War and alarm at the rising tide of Fascism inEurope. These factors undoubtedly played a significantpart in the conception and composition of Our HuntingFathers, ostensibly a song-cycle about man'srelationship with animals, but also, by extension, aboutman's relationship with man.
After the recitative-like Prologue, during which thework's musical motto of a descending major triadclimbing back to the minor third is introduced (at theline 'O pride so hostile to our charity'), Rats Away!comes as a complete contrast with its shrill, wiry scoringand virtuoso vocal pyrotechnics. The wild orchestralflourishes, no doubt representing the scurrying rodentson the move, gradually infest and finally swamp thesoprano's attempt to exorcise the place by prayer ('Et inNomine (Rats!) Patris' etc.). Messalina's lament for herdead monkey contains the most overtly lyrical music inthe work, culminating in an impassioned climax on theword 'Fie' which gradually winds down by way of astriking series of solos for flute, oboe, clarinet andsaxophone in turn (the latter anticipating Britten'selegiac use of this instrument, shorn of its jazzconnotations, in the Sinfonia da Requiem and the sceneof the novice's flogging in Billy Budd). The thirdmovement, Hawking for the Partridge (subtitled Danceof Death) follows on without a break, the sopranoquietly but excitedly reciting the names of the houndsparticipating in the hunt, along with a whooping figureset to the words 'Hey dogs hey!' which featuresprominently in the furious orchestral interlude thatforms the climax of the movement (and of the work as awhole). The catch itself is marked by a fortissimo unisonon the muted brass, after which the soprano isolates thetwo names 'German, Jew', signifying unambiguouslywho is the hunter and who the hunted. The eloquentphrases of the concluding Epilogue and Funeral Marchare continually interrupted by a drily banal pattern onthe xylophone (calling to mind another key influence,Shostakovich) whose impassive repetitions bring thecycle to a disconcertingly equivocal and inconclusiveend.
In the summer of 1939 Britten left what he felt to bethe artistically uncongenial atmosphere of England insearch of a new life and fresh opportunities in America.
The extraordinarily liberating effect this move had onhis work is witnessed by the sheer number of substantialscores he composed or completed within just over a yearof 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, forwhich Britten turned to the French symbolist poetry ofArthur Rimbaud. The work was completed in October1939 and first performed in