Listening to Britten – Johnny


W.H. Auden

Johnny – cabaret song for voice and piano (5 May 1937, Britten aged 23)

Dedication written for Hedli Anderson
Text W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 5′

Background and Critical Reception

Johnny comes from the height of Britten and Auden’s collaborations, a time when Auden in particular was looking to reproduce the spirit and feel of late-1920s Berlin. As Paul Kildea points out in a fascinating couple of pages on this period in Britten’s life, Berlin was a place he had never been – but he ended up vividly evoking its bars and clubs in a small collection of Cabaret Songs, all penned by Auden and written for the soprano of Hedli Anderson.

At the time some of Auden’s texts were written explicitly with Britten in mind, trying to cajole him into recognising his sexual identity and thus fulfilling his dreams. He began this process with Underneath the abject willow, and continued through the cabaret songs. Britten was aware of the subtext, and – musically at least – responded to it immediately and positively.

Paul Kildea describes how a typical day for Britten and Auden in that period was for the poet to write some new verse over breakfast, and for Britten to have it set by dinner. Perhaps 5 May 1937 was one of those days!

Thoughts

John Bridcut notes descriptions of Hedli Anderson as a ‘long legged beauty sitting on the piano’, so with this in mind Johnny would have been the ideal song for her.

The verses are like different songs in themselves, united by the refrain of frustration, for whatever any woman did to try and please Johnny, he always ended up with a glowering countenance.

Anyone who thinks Britten is too prim and proper in his English song settings should have a listen to this, especially the verse where Johnny gets taken to the opera – it’s outrageous but also very funny! In the right hands this song is a riot, and can have the audience chuckling from the off – as I experienced once when I saw Christine Rice and Malcolm Martineau perform it at the Wigmore Hall.

Recordings used
Della Jones (soprano), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Caryl Hughes (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Della Jones is the one to have. Her fulsome tones and exaggerations on the opera verse are, you feel, totally in keeping with what Britten would have wanted to hear. Caryl Hughes is good but not as expansive, and her swoops are not as pronounced in a song that calls for maximum exaggeration!

Spotify

Della Jones and Steuart Bedford can be heard here, part of a Naxos collection of Auden settings by both Britten and Lennox Berkeley. Caryl Hughes’ version is part of an important collection of Britten songs released on Onyx Classics – more information here

Also written in 1937: George and Ira Gershwin – Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (as used in the film Shall We Dance

Next up: Funeral Blues

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