Our Hunting Fathers, Op.8 – symphonic cycle for high voice and orchestra (13 May – 23 July 1936, Britten aged 22)
Prologue (W.H. Auden)
1 Rats away! (anon)
2 Messalina (anon)
3 Dance of death (Thomas Ravenscroft)
Epilogue and funeral march (W.H. Auden)
Dedication Ralph Hawkes (director of Boosey & Hawkes Ltd)
Text Various, devised by W.H. Auden
Background and Critical Reception
“This is my real Op.1!”, exclaimed Britten when his first large-scale orchestral utterance was complete. Our Hunting Fathers represents the full flowering of his creative relationship with Auden, who supplied the texts for the three middle poems, writing his own new verse for the Prologue and Epilogue. Both composer and poet were closely attuned to political developments in the uncertain world of the mid 1930s, and the cycle often touches on this, notably in the juxtaposition of the words ‘German’ and ‘Jew’ towards the end of Messalina.
Britten scholars are now united in their universal acclaim of the bold steps the composer takes in this piece, but it was not always thus. In his biography of the composer, Humphrey Carpenter outlines the circumstances of composition, performance and reception with commendable detail.
Britten approached the work’s premiere, at St Andrew’s Hall in Norwich, with a good deal of trepidation. Initially he had great support from the soprano Sophie Wyss, whose voice he had in mind when writing the piece, but the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who he was conducting for the first time, misbehaved in rehearsal, running amok when playing the second poem Rats Away. Vaughan Williams, who himself had a premiere at the concert (the Five Tudor Portraits) had to step in to restore calm. In addition Britten’s mother Edith had wholeheartedly disapproved of the text for Rats Away, with its interpolation of the Latin invocation of the Holy Trinity, another sign of Britten’s ever more questioning nature with religious and political belief. Britten, while respecting his mother’s opinion, took this as a sign to proceed.
The premiere went a little better than expected, but there were still more obvious detractors than admirers – quite probably because this ‘new’ Britten represented a very different world from the Vaughan Williams Tudor Portraits preceding it. Even Bridge struggled to compliment the work, though his support for Britten remained unstinting. H.C.Colles of The Times didn’t like it, but that pleased Britten. The Telegraph was more ‘flattering and slightly bewildered’, in the composer’s words.
Because of the work’s uncertain reception, and its confrontational nature, Our Hunting Fathers lay largely unperformed from a BBC broadcast with Wyss, Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937. Only Söderström and Pears kept faith with it intermittently, but happily it has now assumed a firmer hold in the repertoire.
Nothing can prepare the casual listener for the crushing impact of one of Britten’s very finest early works.
The change to his musical language in Our Hunting Fathers is radical, unlike anything heard up to this point in his output. He stretches his performers to their technical limits, but also stretches his listeners and their beliefs, both musical and otherwise.
From the first chord of the Prologue it is clear something is amiss. This is the first of many moments where Britten casts his harmonies in an unusual way for the orchestra, and is all the more remarkable in this instance because he almost certainly didn’t hear it before that first rehearsal. The lean sound, with its grainy textures, sets the scene perfectly for what is to come. In fact Britten has discovered a whole new orchestral palette, for the first chord of Messalina is similarly striking, though in this case a lot softer, being a lament for a dead monkey. Harmonically, too, this is adventurous music, and although the same five note motif recurs through all the songs, Britten casts it in different clothing every time.
The influence of Mahler is felt throughout, most notably in the idea of having chamber-like passages in a work set for symphony orchestra. This is what helps Britten to raise his orchestration to new levels. We find some incredibly florid and intense passages of instrumental work, particularly in the whirring and increasingly frenzied percussion used towards the end of the Dance of Death, also known as Hawking for the Partridge. The spectre of Berg also makes itself known in the sardonic harmonies, for Britten had by now heard his opera Wozzeck and the Violin Concerto.
In the quieter music Britten uses the saxophone, with a baleful solo towards the end of Messalina, and chooses a spooky ticking xylophone in the Epilogue. Twinned with a lament for bassoon, it sounds very similar to Shostakovich, both in its simplicity and its imposition on the music.
There is a terrific intensity throughout Our Hunting Fathers, whether in the mad scenes of Hawking for the Partridge, with its whoops of the horn and the rolling of the ‘r’s for the singer, or the manic and unhinged movements of Rats Away, brilliantly portrayed. This is because in his vocal writing, Britten has never been more sure of himself. The last time he wrote for soprano and orchestra, in the Quatre chansons françaises, phrases were implied and languorous. Here the timbres are harsh and confrontational.The singer is taxed throughout, swooping down and then soaring up in a manner that points Britten’s music directly towards the operatic stage. It is both captivating and unnerving.
Our Hunting Fathers still sounds modern and fresh off the page, a mere 77 years after its premiere, and set Britten’s stall out as a composer who will not be backed into a stylistic corner.
Elisabeth Söderström, Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, Richard Armstrong (EMI)
Heather Harper (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (LPO)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford
Peter Pears (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Britten Sinfonia / Daniel Harding (EMI)
Our Hunting Fathers is an all or nothing piece, and its formidable recorded history ensures Britten is incredibly well represented. His only recordings were with Pears, who naturally provides a definitive account for tenors – although he is flanked by Ian Bostridge, whose intensity in the faster music is disconcerting, although he takes a much slower approach to Messalina.
My personal preference is for a soprano voice in this work, and there is an embarrassment of riches here too. Elisabeth Söderström is the pick – just – but anyone opting for Heather Harper and Bernard Haitink will not be disappointed, for theirs is a fearsome, uncompromising reading. Phyllis Bryn-Julson, too, brings volume and a clear, ringing tone to her version with Steuart Bedford, especially in Messalina. The continual cries of ‘fie’ represent the extraordinary climax of this movement, and Bryn-Julson gives it maximum power.
This link is to a playlist that recreates the St Andrew’s Hall concert, beginning with Brahms’s Violin Concerto before moving on to Vaughan Williams’ Five Tudor Portraits. Auden then reads his own poem before a number of versions of Our Hunting Fathers, as mentioned above. Quatre chansons françaises – Lott, ECO / Bedford (tracks 1-4)
Also written in 1936: Shostakovich – Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43
Next up: Soirées musicales