Born in theSuffolk port of Lowestoft in 1913, Benjamin Brit ten was destined to become thepre- eminent British composer of his generation and, as the works recorded hereamply testify, the most consummate setter of the English language in song sinceHenry Purcell, Brit ten began to compose at the age of five, displayingprodigious natural gifts which hastened, in his thirteenth year, a definingperiod of study with Frank Bridge. In 1930 he entered the Royal College ofMusic in London to studypiano and composition. Four years later, after hearing Alban Berg's Wozzeck,he resolved to further his studies under Berg in Vienna, but in the eventhad to content himself with the rather less appealing prospect of writing filmmusic for the General Post Office's Documentary Department. It was here thatBrit ten met W.H. Auden, a future collaborator on such works as the symphonicsong-cycle Our Hunting Fathers. Radical and disjunctive compositions of thelate 1930s stamped Brit ten as an enfant terrible in the eyes of aconservative British musical establishment, and in 1939 he left for the United States of America, accompanied by the tenor Peter Pears.
Comparativeartistic freedom resulted in several ground-breaking works, notably the Sinfoniada Requiem and First String Quartet, but Brit ten's growing uneaseprecipitated a retum to England in 1942, and the start of almost three decadesin which the 'angry young man' of British music consolidated growing universalfame, largely through a succession of major operatic triumphs. Centering hislife around the Suffolk village of Aldeburgh, his home for the remainder of hislife, Benjamin Brit ten always retained a Kiplingesque 'common touch',affirming his personal artistic credo in the words '1 want my music tobe of use to people, to please them, to enhance their lives...'. As the musicologistDonald Mitchell noted in 1977, a year after Britten's death, 'there is anintensely solitary and private spirit, a troubled, sometimes even despairingvisionary, an artist much haunted by nocturnal imagery, by sleep, bypresentiments of mortality...'. Such indeed are the universally compellingissues, at once disquieting and consolatory, which inform the works heard onthis recording.
The threeworks assembled here reflect one of the principal forces at work in Britten'smature creativity. No other British composer of his epoch resorted so often norwith such conspicuous success to the orchestral song cycle. Of Britten's song-scapeswith orchestral accompaniment there are six. The series began in 1928 with QuatreChansons francaises; Our Hunting Fathers followed in 1936, and then came LesIlluminations in 1939, the Serenade/or tenor, horn, and strings in1943, and in 1949 the mighty Spring Symphony, with its settings of poemsfrom Spenser to Blake and W.H. Auden, before ending in 1958 with the Nocturne,Op 60. When considered by the side of his song-cycles for voice and singleaccompanying instrument, Britten 's output in this area is seen as one of themost significant of any English composer, representing the response of thetwentieth century to the achievements of the great Tudor polyphonists and thevocal works of Henry Purcell.
Britten'sremarkable facility as a composer for the human voice transcended any languagebarrier. Indeed, his settings of ten texts by Arthur Rimbaud (1854- 1891),issued under the collective title Les Illuminations, seemed to herald anew-found clarity of utterance, a world removed from the public, andpredominantly left-wing, statements of the 1930s. Yet paradoxically, this worksomehow belies its interior musings and the soul-searching anguish of much ofits content, deftly concealing, not always deeply, but never confusing aphorismwith the loneliness of the remote observer. Les Illuminations waswritten for the soprano Sophie Wyss, who gave the first performance in 1940,though at publication Brit ten stressed its suitability for the tenor voice.
After thesinister opening declamations of Fanfare, l' ai seulla clef decette parade sauvage (1 alone hold the key to this savage parade),Rimbaud's lines reveal those incisive powers of private and public observationat which Brit ten, too, excelled. Les Bacchanles des banlieues (suburbanBacchantes), the pompous, risible absurdities of Royaute (Royalty), theebb-tide of Marine (Seascape) and the shimmering, vaporous reclothingsof Being Beauteous bind a Parade of droles tres solides. From Ole plus violenl Paradis de la grimace enragee! (Oh the most violent Paradise of furiousgrimace!), with its accompanying demons, to the spent submission of the finalsetting, Depart (Leaving). Yet the deliberately enigmatic tone of thiscycle is underpinned, and to a degree even explained by the recurrence of thelines l' ai seulla clef de cette parade sauvage (I alone have the key tothis savage parade) in the final stanza of Parade. Opposing chords of Bflat and E fmally resolving into C major, with the lingering B flat still felt,give especial piquancy and mystery to Fanfare, and how telling isBritten's cross-referencing in Parade, when the soloist again reminds usthat he alone holds the secret to this illusory world, and the comedie magnetique(magnetic comedy) played out by its inhabitants.
Britten'sreturn to England in 1942following his attempted emigration to the United States heralded oneof the most productive periods of his career. Though having planned from theoutset to devote himself fully to the creation of his first full-scale operaticventure Peter Grimes, there were inevitably delays as work continued onthe libretto, and it was during one such period that Brit ten began to sketchone of his most moving works, the Serenadefor tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31.
The prodigiously gifted 21-year old horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, whose lifewould be tragically curtailed by a fatal car accident in 1957, had approached thecomposer requesting a new work for his instrument. 1942, incidentally, would bean important one for horn literature. The near-octogenarian Richard Strauss waswriting the second of his horn concertos at much the same time as Benjamin Britten formulated the inspired idea of combining a work for not just one, but twogreat artists, the other being the tenor Peter Pears, the composer's companionand inspiration since the mid-1930s.
The outcome,not a horn concerto, but a song-cycle for tenor, horn and string orchestra, inwhich the singer takes his cue from the solo instrument, was at onceunprecedented and triumphantly effective. The innocent ear cannot fail to bedeeply struck by this unearthly symbiotic alliance between apparently unrelatedprotagonists; once conjoined with visionary and profoundly moving lines from aseries of the greatest British poets, Britten's Serenade unifiesseemingly disparate forces with uncommon ease. Yet should the juxtapositionnecessarily strike us as unorthodox, given what we all know about the apparentattraction of opposites? After all, has not the horn been both talisman ofromantic yearning and, as Strauss reminds u