Image (c) Graham Catley, whose rather wonderful blog Pewit can be found here
Friday Afternoons, Op.7 for children’s voices (unison) and piano (2 November 1933 – 2 August 1935, Britten aged 21)
1 Begone, dull care (anon)
2 A tragic story (William Makepeace Thackeray)
3 Cuckoo! (Jane Taylor)
4 “Ee-oh”! (anon)
5 A new year carol (anon)
6 I mun be married on Sunday (Nicholas Udall)
7 There was a man of Newington (anon)
8 Fishing song (Izaak Walton)
9 The useful plough (anon)
10 Jazz-man (Eleanor Farjeon)
11 There was a monkey (anon)
12 Old Abram Brown (anon)
Dedication Robert Britten (Britten’s brother) and the boys of Clive House, Prestatyn
Audio clips (Choir of Downside School, Purley / Viola Tunnard, Benjamin Britten (piano))
1 Begone, Dull Care
2 A tragic story
5 A new year carol
6 I mun be married on Sunday
7 There was a man of Newington
8 Fishing song
9 The useful plough
11 There was a monkey
12 Old Abram Brown
Background and Critical Reception
With the completion of Friday Afternoons for his brother’s school in Prestatyn, Britten crossed another important hurdle in digging his way out of his compositional block. The application of film music had helped him, it seems, and he was finally ready to commit to publication a work that had occupied him for the best part of 18 months.
Friday Afternoons is named after the time of the week when Robert Britten would rehearse his choir at Clive House. It will form a major part of Britten’s centenary year, as Aldeburgh Music are using it for a national singing project, due to culminate on the birthday itself, 22 November. Full details of this project can be found here
Perhaps surprisingly, not all Britten scholars are big fans of Friday Afternoons. John Bridcut declares the collection to be uneven, noting the early songs ‘fizz with striking ideas to make them fun for children to perform’. Yet the later songs are ‘have a bland inconsequence which dilutes the impact of the others’. Ateş Orga, who writes the booklet note for Ronald Corp’s recording on Naxos, is not in agreement. ‘Their imagination and economy remains extraordinary’, he says. ‘All are beautiful’. He also draws an interesting parallel in style between Britten and Mahler in the sombre closing song, Old Abram Brown.
The New Year Carol is often performed separately, and was later arranged for three parts (soprano-soprano-also) by Britten and published in 1971.
I tend to side with Ates Orga. These are utterly charming songs, and some of them are strong enough to stick in the memory for days. As many people have indicated with Britten’s songs in general, a lot of the success is down to the choice of texts. I found There was a monkey really tapped into a child’s way of thinking, while Cuckoo! must surely be a lot of fun for a children’s choir to sing.
Begone, dull care! is the ideal way to begin the collection, with the brightly voiced piano setting the tone for a setting that stresses these will be carefree, optimistic songs. That is largely the case, although the odd sombre and even nostalgic note creeps in. A tragic story begins on a very elegant, English note, then gradually casts its inhibitions aside. Ee-Oh, the one addition to Britten’s recording, sounds more longing, and the New Year Carol is necessarily chaste, but it is in the end Old Abram Brown that leaves the longest impression on a complete listen, darkening slightly the optimistic outlook while impressing with its dazzling canonic technique. Britten really comes into his own when writing for a childrens’ chorus, and this is his finest offering for the medium yet.
Choir of Downside School, Purley / Viola Tunnard, Benjamin Britten (piano)
New London Children’s Choir / Ronald Corp, Alexander Wells (piano) (Naxos)
There is a surprising lack of recordings of Friday Afternoons, with only the two available today. That said, these two are as good as you could wish to hear. Britten’s version, conducted by Viola Tunnell, has the composer at his very best on the piano, the little points of punctuation that he writes so well there for all to hear. Alexander Wells is extremely good for Ronald Corp, too, if set a bit further back in the sound picture. Both choirs, however, are excellent.
An oddity (but a welcome one) of the Deutsche Grammophon catalogue is one of their few discs devoted to Britten, with Andrei Gavrilov accompanying the Wiener Sängerknaben, who are conducted by Jaume Miranda. They contribute Ee-Oh to go with Britten’s recording.
The Friday Afternoons playlist contains both the Britten and Ronald Corp recordings.
Also written in 1935 – Eisler: Lenin Requiem
Next up: Men Behind the Meters