Listening to Britten – some early thoughts

Seagull, (c) Ben Hogwood

I’ll be honest – so far, starting the ‘Listening To Britten’ series has been a bit more difficult than I expected.

Part of the problem is knowing the big hitters that lie ahead, and all the works listened to so far have been small picture postcards that give a hint of Britten’s emerging style but don’t yet show his competence with structures larger than a couple of minutes. I have to keep reminding myself that he didn’t arrive at a mature style overnight, and was still a complete youngster, barely into his teens, when writing all these pieces!

That said, there is a maturity in this music that belies his age. What is also surprising is Britten’s choices of text to set, and the way he is already unafraid of setting verse that could be seen as challenging to interpret for one of such tender years. Up until now his sources are resolutely English, but the different slants on what we might call ‘everyday’ English from the pens of Robert Burns, Shelley and Tennyson have already given him much to work with.

So far, with the music making concentrated at home within the Britten family in Lowestoft, we hear just voice and piano, the range tending to be in the middle and the accompaniment relatively simple.

Time and again, though, I find myself coming back to the first song, Beware!. It’s easy to see why Britten retained affection for this song, for its melody sticks in the mind, its sentiment even more so. The Waltzes show that Britten was getting a real grasp of writing for piano, even if at this stage his music bears the imprint of his listening and studying. Bach, Schubert and Schumann are the primary calling cards for me here.

It has been an interesting beginning, then, but one that has also ensured expectations are re-evaluated, while we inevitably look forward to tackling the bigger works. A couple are at hand almost immediately, in the shape of the Quatre Chansons Françaises and an early String Quartet. Soon Britten will leave Lowestoft and head to Gresham’s – and encounter Frank Bridge for the first time.

For a list of the Britten works listened to so far, head for the Listening to Britten tab at the top of the page.

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