The Red Cockatoo – song for high voice and piano (24 January 1938, Britten aged 24)
Dedication not known
Text Arthur Waley, after Po Chü-i
Audio (with thanks to Hyperion Records): Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson:
Background and Critical Reception
Philip Reed’s booklet note for Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson’s outstanding collection of Britten, The Red Cockatoo and other songs, gives the history of this song in very impressive detail.
It was written while Britten was lodging with his sister Beth’s future parents-in-law – who were to help him greatly with moving into his new lodgings at The Old Mill in Snape. Reed details how it is Britten’s first encounter with Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poetry – which he returned to in 1957 for Songs from the Chinese, his collection for tenor and guitar.
The song was not performed until the Aldeburgh Festival 1991, by soprano Lucy Shelton and pianist Ian Brown.
As John Bridcut notes, the song’s 40 seconds are ‘vividly coloured’.
‘Sent as a present from Annam, A red cockatoo’, runs the text – and Britten gives it a very staccato delivery, the pecking piano going with a very florid tenor line that I would imagine is hard to pitch initially. In Britten’s setting it sounds like an announcement, but when the bird is shut in the cage the song ends with an abrupt flourish from the piano.
The song provides another illustration of how Britten can do an awful lot in a very short space of time.
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Hulett’s more extreme level of vibrato might split opinion, whereas Bostridge sounds more at ease with Britten’s melodic line.
Hulett and Martineau are here, the fourth of the group The Red Cockatoo and other songs. This is on the second disc of the second volume of Martineau’s valuable survey of Britten songs for Onyx.
Also written in 1938: Revueltas – Sensemayá
Next up: The World of the Spirit