Listening to Britten – Not even summer yet


Winter scene on the Fens (c) Ben Hogwood

Not even summer yet – song for high voice and piano (9 October 1937, Britten aged 23)

Dedication in memory of Peter Burra
Text Peter Burra
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion Records): Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson:

Background and Critical Reception

The year 1937 must have been a difficult time for Britten personally, for not only had he lost his mother, he was also to lose the promising friendship of Peter Burra, tragically killed in a plane crash at the age of 27. Burra was a friend of Peter Pears, too, and both men helped to clear out his flat – which is where their friendship – and ultimately relationship – began to blossom.

Britten wrote this short song for Burra’s twin sister Nella to sing at his funeral, but although she performed it privately once she was understandably overwrought with emotion and decided against performing in public. It was revived in November 1983 in a Britten 70th anniversary concert by Neil Mackie and Iain Burnside at the Wigmore Hall.

Thoughts

The vocal range Britten uses here is quite a wide one, but it means the opening melody is both graceful and mournful, with more of a traditional ‘English’ feel. The piano winds its way around the vocal with a carefree line before both alight in a place of rest, a soft D major.

Knowing the story behind the song lends it a poignant sadness, whereas without that it comes across as a gentle, light piece of melancholy. Either way it is a touching tribute to an early departing friend.

Recordings used

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Neil Mackie (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (EMI Classics)

All three partnerships secure passionate performances. Of the three singers, Bostridge it is who arguably wrings more emotion from the text.

Spotify

Hulett and Martineau are here, grouped in with The Red Cockatoo and other songs, part of the second volume of Martineau’s valuable survey of Britten songs for Onyx.

Also written in 1937: Moeran – Symphony in G minor

Next up: On This Island, Op.11

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