Two Ballads for two voices and piano (9 – 18 November 1936, Britten aged 23)
1 Mother Comfort (Montagu Slater)
2 Underneath the abject willow (W.H. Auden)
Dedication Not known
Text Montagu Slater, W.H. Auden
Background and Critical Reception
Underneath the abject willow was dedicated to Britten by Auden, and was a poem observing, in Humphrey Carpenter’s words, Britten as an ‘individual restraining himself from full emotional commitment’. The full text of Auden’s poem can be found here.
The Britten Thematic Catalogue states that this song and Mother Comfort ‘were intended for performance by the Swiss-born sisters, Sophie and Colette Wyss’, Sophie’s being the voice Britten wrote Our Hunting Fathers for. However Colette withdrew from the first performance due to anxiety over singing an English text, with the soprano Betty Bannerman taking her place at the Wigmore Hall.
A beautifully shaped piano part brings in the first song, Mother Comfort, though this is a largely sombre, distracted affair. Its stand-out line, ‘will you be mother comfort or shall I?’, finds the vocal parts falling into a lower range, beautifully paired by the composer.
Underneath the abject willow is a more upbeat song laced with determination, perhaps a robust rebuttal of Auden’s accusations, though it too has a reflective side before ending in a fluttering of wings.
Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)
Beautifully sung, with Lott and Murray as one in the duet passages. Graham Johnson shapes the upward phrase of Mother Comfort beautifully.
Also written in 1936: Vaughan Williams – Donna Nobis Pacem
Next up: Love From A Stranger