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

Listening to Britten – Lemady


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

Lemady (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 3) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 1’30”

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

The third of Britten’s eight folksong settings for tenor and harp is drawn from the Journal of the folk song society, volume 19, published in June 1915.

Lewis Foreman, writing the booklet notes for Hyperion’s release of the complete folksong settings, goes into further detail: ‘Lemady was sung by Robert Beadle at Stoup Brow, Whitby, Yorkshire, in September 1911, the music noted by Clive Carey, the words by Mary Neal.’

Thoughts

This is a much more positive setting than the first two in Britten’s last set of arrangements, and it enjoys the blissful freedom that walking in the fields and meadows can bring.

The harp part is wonderful here, dressing the tune with swirls and pointed melodic comments, all the while circling around the purest C major.

Recordings used

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

Jamie MacDougall and Bryn Lewis get right to the heart of the bright midsummer colours in this song, with some lovely harp playing. Osian Ellis, too, plays beautifully, with a sparkling run to the finish. Philip Langridge is the rapturous subject.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard on Spotify here

Also written in 1976: Geoffrey Burgon – Requiem

Next up: Bonny at morn

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

Listening to Britten – She’s like the swallow


An East Coast Village by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

She’s like the swallow (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 2) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3′

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 second of Britten’s eight folksong arrangements for high voice (Pears) and harp (Ellis), She’s like the swallow is a Newfoundland song adapted from a song sung by John Hunt at Dunville, Placentia Bay, on 8 July 1930.

This information comes from the complete Hyperion recording of the folksongs, though the Britten Thematic Catalogue elaborates by giving a collector – Maud Karpeles – who published Folk Songs from Newfoundland through Faber & Faber in 1971.

Thoughts

She’s Like The Swallow picks up from where Lord! I Married Me A Wife left off, cast in the same key but with a more flowing approach.

It is however another mysterious song with darker undertones, perhaps best heard in the final line of the chorus, where the subject sings, ‘I love my love and love is no more’. The harp adds to the otherworldly atmosphere with its softly oscillating figures that stick to the tenor line like glue, and never feel confident enough to establish a firm harmony. There is always a nagging note or two to pull the music away – elusive, just like the swallow of the song.

Recordings used

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

Grace and beauty are the two words that best describe Langridge’s account with Osian Ellis, who capture the mystery of Britten’s setting. MacDougall and Lewis are also softly effective here.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard here, as part of the complete Britten folksong arrangements re-released by Naxos in two volumes.

Also written in 1976: Penderecki – Violin Concerto No. 1

Next up: Lemady

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

Listening to Britten – Lord! I Married Me A Wife


Horse and Cart 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

The Eighth volume of folksong arrangements marks the last works of Britten’s life both for Peter Pears and for a solo singer. Britten was now no longer able to play the piano for any length of time, and chose the harp – and, just as importantly, Osian Ellis – as his choice for the accompaniment in these works.

Britten commentators agree that the leaner textures of the harp suit the sparseness of these late arrangements. Eric Roseberry, writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, says, ‘The sonority of the harp is a characteristic motif in Britten – from the evergreen A Ceremony of Carols, through the Nocturne, with its memorable imagery in the Coleridge setting of the ‘beauteous’ boy plucking fruits, to its rarefied collaboration with the strange words of the early T.S. Eliot in The Death of St Narcissus.

Donald Mitchell, in his notes for the first complete edition of the folksongs as released on Collins Classics, writes how ‘Over half of the harp folk songs had been brought to Britten’s attention by Imogen Holst, some as long ago as 1958. This particular song was from the southern Appalachians by Cecil Sharp.

Thoughts

Roseberry draws out the ‘spiteful’ use of repetition Britten achieves on the words ‘wife’, ‘life’ and ‘work’ in this song. That goes some way to explaining how the marriage is a far from happy one. ‘She gave me trouble all my life, made me work in the cold rain and snow!’ moans the singer – and the harp backs him up by vividly evoking the colder weather in particular. What a hardship!

It’s this darker edge that carries through Britten’s later folk song settings, using textures that ought to be lighter – but actually making them rather icy.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
John Shirley-Quirk (baritone), Osian Ellis (harp) (Meridian)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

Langridge is the world weary one here, and you can picture him singing with his shoulders laid low as Osian Ellis paints the vivid pictures around him. MacDougall, by far the younger singer, is fresher – but still sings well, with Lewis an oppulent accompanist.

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: George Crumb – Dream Sequence

Next up: She’s like the swallow

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

Listening to Britten – Stratton

goodmorningbritten:

An updated entry, as I have now purchased the recording!

Originally posted on Good Morning Britten:


The cover of the only available recording of Stratton, as released on Pearl.

Stratton – Incidental music (pre 31 October 1949, Britten aged 35)

Text Ronald Duncan
Duration unknown

Audio clips

Clips from the only known recording of Stratton can be heard over at the Allmusic website

Background and Critical Reception

Britten collaborated with Ronald Duncan once again for his very last piece of incidental music, of which very little is known. The score is lost, so the forces for which Stratton was composed are not known – but one recording remains. Conducted by Britten himself, it is described by the issuing record label, Pearl, as ‘thirteen pieces without title, running continuously’.

In his booklet note for the recording, Paul Campion notes the work was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in October 1949. ‘It was not a critical success’, he recounts. ‘It is a tragic story. He (Duncan)…

View original 473 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – Britain To America, Series II No.13: Where Do We Go From Here?


Iowa in the Pacific; Indiana can be seen in the distance. Image obtained through Wikimedia Commons

Britain To America, Series II No.13: Where Do We Go From Here? – Incidental music for alto voice and instrumental ensemble (January 1943, Britten aged 29)

Text Louis MacNeice
Duration not known – vocal number is 2’10”

Background and Critical Reception

‘Britten’s skill as a composer of radio music was well known before the war and it is not surprising to find the BBC keen to obtain his services for similar work in wartime, though up to March 1941 it had been BBC policy not to employ conscientious objectors’.

So reads a note in the ever-revealing Letters from a Life, Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed’s collection of selected letters and diary entries of Britten. This note, from volume 2 of the collection, details the time when Britten was asked to supply music for three radio programmes written by Louis MacNeice, which were a collaborative effort with CBS in New York.

Where do we go from here? was broadcast on 3 January 1943, and around that time Mitchell and Reed draw attention to a certain poet who heard them on the radio. ‘Have heard some of the Monday night broadcasts’, writes W.H. Auden. ‘What trash.’

Thoughts

After a sweet introduction, the song opens up as a slightly more relaxed alternative to one of the Cabaret Songs. Britten’s orchestration is relatively rich, with saxophone, brass and swirling harp making themselves known around the text. The melody itself leans alternately on major and minor thirds in the verse, adding a slight bitterness to the mix.

Where do we go from here? sounds like a show tune, especially when the orchestra shadow the vocal line, before the grand ending. Yet the question at the heart of the song remains, in spite of the bravado.

Recordings used

Mary Carewe (mezzo-soprano), Hallé / Sir Mark Elder

Carewe has the ideal voice for this song, with a touch of nostalgia but not too much. The colourful orchestration is also an asset.

Spotify

The song can be heard here, as part of NMC’s recent Britten to America album.

Also written in 1943: Martinů – Violin Concerto no.2

Next up: Lord! I Married Me A Wife

Posted in Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Radio score, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Listening to Britten – Hadrian’s Wall: Roman Wall Blues

COVER DESIGN.indd
Britten and Auden, an image used by NMC for their free download of Roman Wall Blues

Hadrian’s Wall – Incidental music for male voice, chorus, percussion and string quartet (12 – 16 November 1937, Britten aged 23)

Approximately fifteen numbers, of which Roman Wall Blues is the only survivor.

Text W.H. Auden
Duration 2’30” (Roman Wall Blues only)

Audio

A free download of Roman Wall Blues was made available by NMC in 2013, and can be accessed by clicking here.

Background and Critical Reception

Another example of Britten and Auden’s collaborative work, Hadrian’s Wall was completed in quick time in 1937. Unfortunately the music is lost, but the vocal line for Roman Wall Blues appeared by chance in 2013.

Colin Matthews writes, on the NMC website, “I had only given it a quick look at the time, but enough to know that it was very much in the mode of Britten’s Cabaret Songs and the Funeral Blues from The Ascent of F6, both also composed in 1937″.

Matthews suggested to the author and journalist Charlotte Higgins that he attempt to write a piano part for the song, and the finished score is printed in her book, Under Another Sky – Journeys In Roman Britten. NMC, the company of which Matthews is a founder and Executive Producer, then made the song available as a free download as part of the Britten Centenary celebrations – and as part of the PR for their new release of Britten to America, featuring the first recordings of The Ascent of F6 and An American In England.

Thoughts

As Matthews rightly says, Roman Wall Blues is very closely related to the Funeral Blues from The Ascent of F6, and could easily fit in the four Cabaret Songs as an encore piece, being almost their equal.

Tinged with melancholy, it is also a rather stoical piece of work, ending ‘I shall do nothing but gaze at the sky’, but is ultimately a good example of a period when Britten was perhaps at his most ‘popular’ in terms of musical style.

Recordings used

Mary Carewe (soprano), Huw Watkins (piano) (NMC)

Carewe is right inside this music, having had previous experience of Britten film and cabaret scores – and her tone is ideal for the baleful text.

Spotify

Roman Wall Blues can be heard here, as part of the Britten to America album

Also written in 1937: Berio – Pastorale for piano

Next up: An American in England

Posted in English, Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Radio score, Songs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment