Listening to Britten – Praise We Great Men


Flintham by John Piper, 1977. (c) The Piper Estate. Image used courtesy of Tate

Praise We Great Men, for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, chorus (SATB) and orchestra (July-October 1976, orchestrated by Colin Matthews. Britten aged 62)

Dedication Written for Mstislav Rostropovich to perform in Washington, July 1977
Text Edith Sitwell
Duration 7’30″

Background and Critical Reception

And so we reach the last work in the Britten Thematic Catalogue – BTC no. 1184, to be exact – which, from a man who only allocated 95 opus numbers, is a staggering statistic. Yet this final piece, a short cantata where Britten returned to the poetry of Edith Sitwell for the first time since the Third Canticle, remained unfinished, given a helping hand to its halfway point by Britten’s assistant Colin Matthews, who also orchestrated the piece.

The final volume of Letters From A Life, the exhaustive reproduction and contextualisation of Britten’s letters by Philip Reed, Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke, reveals that ‘during the 1960s, Britten copied out the poem into the red exercise book he regularly used for his composition projects. The work was abandoned at that time and not revived until 1976, when Britten added his musical annotations’.

In an interview for this site, Matthews talked about the piece in detail. ‘I didn’t ‘complete’ it, as there was nearly half still to be written when Britten died, and I felt it should stop exactly where he had left it. (Except that, after an empty bar, I added an instrumental coda, based on the penultimate section.) We’d already agreed that I would orchestrate it, which would have been a more elaborate process than the Welcome Ode, and I completed the score a month or two after Britten’s death. It was nearly another ten years before Rostropovich (for whom it was being written) gave the first performance.’

Thoughts

This first performance was not in Washington, where Rostropovich was to conduct it as part of his first season with the National Symphony Orchestra, but – rather appropriately – in the Snape Maltings, where Rostropovich conducted the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. The vocal soloists were Marie McLaughlin, Heather Harper, Philip Langridge and Richard Jackson.

Britten’s final utterance gets off to a rousing start, the open fifths of the chorus declamation like a great gust of air that passes through from the top of the texture to the bottom. The orchestra are very much secondary to this, but shrill piccolo interjections start to break up the choral text before a tenor solo, ‘Praise we the just’. This would undoubtedly have been for Pears, and is all the more moving when sensing that. More soloists join the crowd, and the orchestra becomes more soloistic, before a ‘Coda’, in serene C major, brings the music to a standstill, effectively stopping in mid flow.

At this point it is literally as if Britten has stopped writing, closed his book, laid down his pen and gone to sleep. As the last line of Sitwell’s poem states, ‘on wings of music let us rise’.

Recordings used

Robert Tear (tenor), Alison Hargan (soprano), Mary King (mezzo-soprano), Sir Willard White (bass), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)

The only recording of Praise We Great Men is part of Sir Simon Rattle’s valuable Britten anthology released with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra back in 1991. The chorus sing with gusto and the orchestra are ideally balanced – both in performance and by the engineers. The soloists are good but Robert Tear is exceptional in his first solo.

Spotify

Rattle conducts Britten can be found on Spotify here, with Praise We Great Men appearing towards the end of the first disc, starting at track 18.

Also written in 1976: Górecki – Symphony no.3, Op.36,’Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’

Posted in Choir and orchestra, Choral, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – Welcome Ode, Op.95


Three Portrait Studies of Her Majesty The Queen by Edward Seago. Photo (c) Estate of Edward Seago courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Welcome Ode, Op.95, for young people’s chorus (SAB, with optional T) and orchestra (19 August 1976, approved by Britten on 8 October 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Written for the occasion of Her Majesty the Queen’s Silver Jubilee visit to Ipswich on 11 July 1977
Text Various
Duration 7’30″

1 March (Thomas Dekker and John Ford)
2 Jig (orchestra)
3 Roundel (Anon, 1600)
4 Modulation (orchestra)
5 Canon (Henry Fielding)

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s final completed composition returned him to writing for the people he loved most of all – children. Composed for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, Welcome Ode – classed as a short cantata – is for young people’s choir and orchestra, written for performance on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Ipswich on 11 July of Jubilee year. Colin Matthews, who was working as Britten’s assistant, completed the orchestration under careful supervision from the composer.

Initially Britten suggested a score for only ‘high register’, ‘middle register’ instruments etc – as in Psalm 150 – but decided against what he saw as ‘writing down’ to the players, and changed the scoring to include as many ad lib instruments as were available.

Though a short piece, Welcome Ode has five linked sections, with a march, jig and canon that John Bridcut describes as ‘familiar Britten terrain. But it is moving to find that, when his physical strength was failing for the final time, the bounce in the music was as exuberant as ever. It is…Britten at his most generous.’

Thoughts

After the haunting folksong settings completed earlier in 1976, it is something of a relief to witness Britten returning to music of greater exuberance and ceremony, in spite of his ailing body. Welcome Ode is cheery, celebratory music that bursts forth, just like opening the window on a windy day or bright, sunny morning.

It is a big orchestral sound that Britten chooses, with brass to the fore, and the harmonies are typically bold. It is interesting to note that the key the music ends in – B flat major – has served other ceremonial pieces well, such as the Canadian Carnival. The triumphant end carries a striking similarity to the end of Sibelius’ Symphony no.5 in its clever alternation of silence and massive, block chords.

Recordings used

Jubilee Choir, Suffolk Schools’ Orchestra / Keith Shaw (Decca)
Senior Choirs of the City of London School for Girls, City of London School, London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Perhaps not surprisingly, owing to its forces, there are few available recordings of the Welcome Ode – the first of which is made by the original forces from the 1977 premiere. It proceeds with enjoyable bluster and occasion, the children sing enthusiastically and the brass of the school orchestra adds the pageantry.

Richard Hickox benefits from improved sound and a professional orchestra, adding tighter ensemble to the brassy passages – but at the same time losing a little of the original’s amateur appeal.

Spotify

The Hickox version can be heard here, on a Chandos release that includes the Spring Symphony and Psalm 150.

Also written in 1976: Philip Glass – Einstein on the Beach

Next up: Praise We Great Men

Posted in Choir and orchestra, Choral, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – Bird Scarer’s Song


Norfolk Hayfield by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Lord! I Married Me A Wife (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 1) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 1′

Audio clips

The first half of the Hyperion recording by Jamie MacDougall and Bryn Lewis can be heard at their website

Background and Critical Reception

Britten signs off his solo vocal output with this short cameo, a setting of a song from the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, collected by Cecil Sharp.

Eric Roseberry gives a detailed observation that ‘In the wild cadenza-like commotion of Birdscarer’s Song…there is high art and admirable economy in Britten’s free treatment of folk vocal line and harp accompaniment – wildness in the quasi-inversion of the tune implicit in the opening harp octaves, a whirring of wings in the partial heterophony of the harp tremolo that accompanies ‘Shoo arlo birds’, and tension in the simple yet dramatic (mixed modal B major-minor versus pentatonic Bb) bitonality’.

Thoughts

To me this sounds like original Britten, outdoors and in the fields – but again with a dark undercurrent to the shooing of the birds, which for some reason I took to be crows.

The harp portrays the reckless fluttering of wings with uncanny accuracy, while the scarer resorts to clapping his hands at the end, at which point the harp completes its upward sweep – the birds sent on their way.

Though only a minute long, it is a remarkably vivid picture of an outdoor scene.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

Philip Langridge gets fully into character as the Scarer, more so than Jamie MacDougall. Both supporting harpists, Osian Ellis and Bryn Lewis, are excellent.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard here, though if you want a deeper voice John Shirley-Quirk and Ellis are here

Also written in 1976: Schnittke – Piano Quintet

Next up: Welcome Ode, Op.95

Posted in Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – The False Knight upon the Road


Melting Snow, Ludham by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

The False Knight upon the Road (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 7) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3’30″

Audio clips

The first part of the Hyperion recording by soprano Lorna Anderson and harpist Bryn Lewis can be heard at their website

Background and Critical Reception

The penultimate setting of the eight made by Britten for high voice and harp, The False Knight upon the Road is also the most substantial. Lewis Foreman confirms it to be another song from the Appalachians, sung by Mrs T G Coates at Flag Bond, Tennessee on 1 September 1916, and published in Cecil Sharp’s collection of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.

Writing about the folksongs in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, Eric Roseberry notes how ‘An uncanny hypnotism develops in the strange, hauntingly repetitive ballad of The False Knight upon the Road, as if the child’s gaze becomes transfixed on its hapless victim.’

Thoughts

Of all the Britten works I have listened to this has been one of the most unsettling. It starts amiably enough, as the child meets the knight in the road and the two strike up a conversation. The harmonic language is relatively untroubled, the melody is attractive, and the child and knight appear to be getting on amiably enough.

But there are still clues for the upcoming discomfort that Britten lays in the harmony, with the harp’s tendency to move towards minor chords an unsettling feature, and sure enough the child moves to the dark side. This comes to a head when the knight exclaims, “I think I hear a bell!” and the child responds, “Yes, and it’s bringing you to hell!”

It is a chilling development, all the more so as the melody and accompaniment remain the same – but the words and their delivery have become much more sinister.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

Philip Langridge adds a real chill to the final stanzas of this arrangement, shouting out the words with great conviction. Lorna Anderson also sings this very well, her delivery of the words narrowing at this point.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard here

Also written in 1976: Lutosławski – Mi-parti for orchestra

Next up: Bird Scarer’s Song

Posted in Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – Dafydd Y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock)


The leaning willow by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Dafydd Y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock) (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 6) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language Welsh
Duration 3′

Audio clips

The first part of the Hyperion recording by Jamie MacDougall and Bryn Lewis can be heard at their website

Background and Critical Reception

This is the second Welsh tune making an appearance in this set of eight folksong settings, and it is the well-known David of the White Rock. Lewis Foreman, researching for his booklet note to accompany Hyperion’s recording of the complete folksong settings, confirms that the melody is by David Owen, and was published in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards in 1784.

Harpist Osian Ellis – for whom these settings were written with the voice of Sir Peter Pears – added the second verse.

Thoughts

Once again Britten writes his arrangement for this folksong with an eye on the setting that preceded it. The key of Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn turns sour, from F major to F minor, for a halting song that is relatively heavy going when compared to the other songs in this set.

That is because the text seems to deliberately drag, and there are some discords in the harp, particularly at the end, once the death of ‘thy master’ has been observed. This would almost certainly have been close to Britten’s heart, especially the note in the second vers that Ellis penned – ‘Weak are my fingers, and falt’ring my tongue!

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

Langridge begins this song quite deliberately, heavy of heart, though the texture does get lighter as he progresses.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard here

Also written in 1976: Abba – Dancing Queen

Next up: The False Knight upon the Road

Posted in Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn (I was lonely and forlorn)


The Wensum at Norwich, December by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn (I was lonely and forlorn) (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 5) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language Welsh
Duration 2’20

Audio clips

The first half of the Hyperion recording by Jamie MacDougall and Bryn Lewis can be heard at their website

Background and Critical Reception

The fifth of Britten’s eight folksong arrangements for voice and harp is set in Welsh, using words by Osian Ellis to the traditional Welsh tune Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn.

Paul Kildea, who does not often refer to the folksongs in his biography of the composer, speaks of how ‘the arrangements in this volume are gentler than those made by the young, homesick composer stuck in America, unwell and frustrated; but they display all the earlier songs’ life and invention. And though there is nostalgia at work in these settings, much as there was in the first volume, such arrangements now took up less space on the page and in his mind.’

Kildea goes on to declare his favourite of the eight. ‘The most beautiful of these songs – perhaps the most beautiful of all his many folksong arrangements – is a sad little Welsh tune’, he writes. ‘It tells (in Welsh) the story of a young man’s unrequited love, which Britten sets as a lute song, the narrator strumming away as he relates his unhappy tale, Dowland’s melancholia thick in the air’.

Thoughts

It is easy to see why Kildea got so carried away about this particular song, as it does cast a spell on its listener.

This is due to the almost constant thrumming of the harp, which seems to encourage the singer to greater heights. The tune is a grand one, especially when sung slowly, and Britten’s elaborations on the harp feel just right, completing what could be an ideal encore piece.

Ultimately the tale is a tragic one, the final chorus singing with great regret, ‘For I had watched the ripening wheat, Yet others reaped her loving’.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

Philip Langridge sings rapturously, especially in the quieter closing verse, with voluminous colour from Osian Ellis’s harp.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard here

Also written in 1976: Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains The Same

Next up: Dafydd Y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock

Posted in Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – Bonny at Morn (with harp)


A Windy Day by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Bonny at Morn (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 4) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3’20″

Audio clips

The first part of the Hyperion recording by Jamie MacDougall and Bryn Lewis can be heard at their website

Background and Critical Reception

This is the second of Britten’s settings of the Northumbrian tune Bonny at Morn, which was taken from W G Whittaker’s North Countrie Ballads, Songs and Pipe Tunes.

It is almost twice as long as the first setting for high voice and guitar, due to the insertion of a couple of linking passages for harp between each verse.

Thoughts

This setting of Bonny at Morn follows on effectively from Lemady, turning that song’s C major tonality to minor, before moving to F minor for the melody itself. The effect of changing the key in this way introduces a cloud that never quite goes, despite the relatively bright harp commentary that turns to major at the very end.

This casts a shadow over the song, a succession of warning notes that perhaps speak of Britten’s awareness that there is not long to go. As he often did with folksong settings, Britten sets up a canon between the singer and his harp, though this is never strictly imposed.

It is intriguing to compare Britten’s two settings of the folk song. The first, with guitar, is lightly nostalgic – but there is a gathering distance here between composer and listener.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

There is a strong sense of yearning in Langridge’s account, with the harp part superbly marshalled by Ellis. Bryn Lewis can hardly be heard as the introduction ghosts in, and MacDougall arrives with similar stealth. It is a striking effect.

Spotify

You can compare the version of Bonny at Morn with guitar from Philip Langridge and Carlos Bonell with the harp version with Osian Ellis, available here

Also written in 1976: Elliot Carter – A Symphony of Three Orchestras

Next up: Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn

Posted in Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment