The Birds – song for voice and piano (3 June – 4 August 1929, Britten aged 15)
Dedication Mrs R.V. Britten (Britten’s mother)
Text Hilaire Belloc
Background and Critical Reception
The Birds is a key early song in Britten’s output, and having originally set it for soprano and strings he made a revision for voice and piano in 1934. Dedicated to his mother Edith, it was one of her favourite songs, and was sung at her funeral, while it was also used at the wedding of Britten’s sister Beth. The song also marks a key passage in the relationship with his teacher Frank Bridge, who helped Britten to finish it. ‘I had a terrible struggle with this before finding what has been called “the right ending in the wrong key”, he said.
This is a song of pure beauty, and it’s easy to imagine how it must have brought a tear to the eye at Britten’s mother’s funeral. It is one of the best examples yet of how the young composer benefits from a more simplistic approach, although as the song progresses the piano part becomes more florid, in response to the text. The end is the first clue we get to one of Britten’s key techniques, the ‘right ending in the wrong key’ an unexpected but wholly logical harmony at the end. It’s a trick that rarely lost its appeal, used to eye opening effect at key points in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and the War Requiem, to name just two.
John Hahessy (alto), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Eloquence)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Catherine Hopper (soprano), Alexander Wells (piano)
All three recordings get to the heart of the song, though perhaps predictably Britten’s accompaniment is beautifully and subtly pointed. Hearing Johnston sing the poem evokes stronger thoughts of Britten’s mother.
Also written in 1929: Bax – Symphony no.3
Next up: Diaphenia