Listening to Britten – Quatre chansons françaises

(c)Brian Hogwood

Quatre chansons françaises – songs for high voice and orchestra (June – August 1928, Britten aged 14; edited by Colin Matthews and published 1982)

1 Nuits de juin (Hugo) Lento e molto rubato
2 Sagesse (Verlaine) Lento ma non troppo
3 L’Enfance (Hugo) Animato – Lento
4 Chanson d’automne (Verlaine) Moderato con molto moto ma sempre colla voce

Dedication Mr and Mrs R. V. Britten on the twenty-seventh anniversary of their wedding, September 5th 1928
Text Victor Hugo (1 & 3), Paul Verlaine (2 & 4)
Language French
Duration 12’30”

Background and Critical Reception

There is a common agreement that the Quatre chansons françaises represent something of a watershed in Britten’s output, offering as they do an early reflection of the impact of studying with Frank Bridge. Michael Oliver puts it best, noting the four songs as ‘an astonishing achievement for an English schoolboy of fourteen’. The English here is an important distinction, given the settings and their musical language. He also suggests that Britten was ‘accompanying Bridge in his musical explorations, and not dutifully following him’ – which makes sense, as there is so much that is new here it is unlikely all to have been taught.

Paul Kildea invites a parallel between the opening of the first poem, Nuits de juin, and the opening of Billy Budd, drawing attention to the way in which both use tonalities that are close together.

Originally the Quatre chansons were to be ‘Cinq’ – but Dans le bois, previously appraised here, was omitted by the composer. Britten later arranged the set for voice and piano in December 1928.


There is very little about the Quatre chansons françaises to suggest they are the work of an English composer.

Nor are they obviously related to Britten’s juvenilia thus far, for there are so many striking new elements to his style that it is difficult to know where to start. Clearly he has taken in a lot of new music in the time following the String Quartet in F, undergoing something of a musical transformation. The language is elusive and less obvious, the need to impress much less evident.

An often recurring voice here is that of Debussy, heard in the sensuous slide of the muted violins doubling the soprano about 1’30” in to Nuits de juin, as well as some of the string writing and woodwind writing in Chanson d’autonne. The orchestration is remarkably proficient, the use of piano and harp providing definition to complement the softness of the strings. The heady atmosphere is fully responsive to Victor Hugo’s verse, and the flute in Nuits de juin and oboe in Sagesse assume importance with an assurance that suggests how comfortably Britten could already write for woodwind.

The music of Berg can be sensed as well, in the richness of the added note harmony and the ambiguity of key – and that makes good sense as he was a composer Bridge was keenly aware of at the time.

It is in the third song, L’Enfance, where we get the keenest glimpse of Britten’s individual voice. The subject matter is key; a child of five whose mother lies on her death bed, but so is the musical language, as a seemingly innocent tune, softly whistled by the flute, is truncated by harmonies of a wholly darker origin. This is perhaps the first instance of a technique Britten went on to use frequently in his music, combining the music of innocence and dread. It is pointed out that while writing this song he was aware of the impending departure to boarding school, and experienced nightmares involving his mother. This song, the longest of the four, appears to bear the mark of that deep and vivid fear.

And so – at the age of fourteen – Britten takes a big step forward in his musical expression, and turns his mind towards the next stage of his education, Gresham’s School in Holt.

Recordings used
Susan Gritton (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Jill Gomez (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
Felicity Lott (soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford

These are three high quality recordings, although there are noticeable differences between the interpretations of Felicity Lott and Susan Gritton. In the third song, Lott is almost a minute quicker, and her approach is more direct and defined, while Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO capture the chilly turn the poem takes. With Gritton and Edward Gardner the overall atmosphere seems to be more important. Furthermore the ECO’s playing with Lott feels more defined than that of the BBC SO, and Steuart Bedford reveals a lot more in the accompanying parts. Jill Gomez and Sir Simon Rattle fall somewhere between these two, though in all truth you could not go wrong with either of the three versions.

Quatre chansons françaises – Lott, ECO / Bedford (tracks 1-4)

Also written in 1928: Weill – Die Dreigroschenoper

Next up: Rhapsody for string quartet

This entry was posted in French, Listening to Britten, Songs, Songs with orchestra and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Quatre chansons françaises

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Canadian Carnival, Op.19 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Suite for harp, Op.83 | Good Morning Britten

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