On This Island, Op.11 – five songs for voice and piano (5 May – 12 October 1937, Britten aged 23)
1 Let the florid music praise!
2 Now the leaves are falling fast
5 As it is, plenty
Dedication Christopher Isherwood
Text W.H. Auden
Audio clips (using the recording made by soprano Lynne Dawson and pianist Malcolm Martineau – with thanks to Hyperion)
1. Let the florid music praise!
2. Now the leaves are falling fast
5. As it is, plenty
Background and Critical Reception
On This Island had a relatively long gestation period, but the prime reason for this was Britten’s organisation of the Auden settings he was working on at the time. It does however come from a particularly fraught period in his young adulthood, with the pain of his parents’ passing – especially his mother – still fresh, and the unexpected blow of the death of his close friend Peter Burra.
At this point pretty much everything Britten did artistically revolved around Auden and his circle, to the creative exclusion of Frank Bridge. Both Humphrey Carpenter and Paul Kildea detail an instance where Bridge offered advice on the piano accompaniment to the first of the five songs, Let the florid music praise! which was further removed than ever from the style to which he was accustomed. This time Britten – aware he was pleasing a number of prominent arts figures – rejected his teacher’s prompting. The two didn’t fall out, but the dreaded phrase ‘artistic differences’ would sum up their plight! Eventually – after some persuasion – Britten relented a little and revised some of the part.
The songs are not so much a cycle as a collection of Auden settings that Britten was working on at the time. The final song, As it is, plenty, gets a rougher ride from scholars who feel it is contrived to secure applause. If that was the aim it worked, but this led Britten to decide the collection was ‘far too amenable for contemporary music’. Other Auden settings were composed as potential inclusions for a second volume, these being To lie flat on the back, Night covers up the rigid land, and The sun shines down.
The Nocturne is regarded as a lament for Burra, while Humphrey Carpenter interprets Now the leaves are falling fast as laced with sexual frustration. Carpenter’s commentary on this period of Britten’s life is thoroughly engaging, bringing through the tensions of grief versus the true beginning of the composer’s adulthood.
Arnold Whittall, in his detailed survey The Music of Britten and Tippett, talks of the ‘eloquent plainness’ of the Nocturne, explaining how working with seemingly straightforward material brought out the simplest – and the best – of settings in Britten. He also notes how On This Island has no obvious linking device between the songs, making it less of a cycle and more of a collection.
On This Island was initially a vehicle for Sophie Wyss to perform, and she gave the first performance with Britten at the piano in Broadcasting House Concert Hall. Eventually its versatility meant a tenor could also sing it – and Peter Pears performed it frequently with the composer.
Britten strives to please in these songs, and as a result they don’t feel quite as naturally wrought as some of his best, despite being very fine pieces of work. As Arnold Whittall says, Britten is at his best when setting the simple stuff, and the affecting Nocturne is a real tear-jerking beauty. At the other end of the volume scale Let the florid music praise! is a bold fanfare, a call to arms with the long arm of Purcell attached to it. It works, but in a slightly colder sense.
As with a lot of Britten settings of Auden from this period the nervous tension is palpable, especially in the edgy piano movements of Now the leaves are falling fast and Seascape. This is where one can sense Britten’s piano parts starting to take on ever-greater importance on the picture painting side of things.
The collection works well with either a female or a male voice, although for brightness and extra clarity the soprano – for me at least – just gets the nod.
Barbara Bonney (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Philip Ledger (piano) (EMI Classics)
Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
James Gilchrist (tenor) Anna Tilbrook (piano) (Linn)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
There are some strong versions here, but Barbara Bonney’s is ultimately ahead of the soprano field, with Malcolm Martineau’s ever sensitive pianism. Martineau is something of an Island veteran, having also partnered Sarah Leonard, Lynne Dawson and Elizabeth Atherton. The later pairing is good but a little too reverberant in their recording. In the tenor version there is very little to choose between Robert Tear and Sir Philip Ledger, James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, and Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford. The latter bring a weighty grandeur to Let the florid music praise!
The versions by Bonney, Tear and Langridge appear as part of this Britten and Auden playlist, which also includes the songs composed with a second volume in mind.
Also written in 1937: Berg – Lulu
Next up: To lie flat on the back with the knees flexed