Johnson Over Jordan – suite from Incidental music for orchestra (February 1939, Britten aged 25)
3 Incinerators’ Ballet
4 The Spider and the Fly
5 Approach of Death
6 End Music
Text J.B. Priestley (vocal numbers)
Providing you have a log-in, audio clips from the suite can be heard over at the Naxos website
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s recent preoccupation with death continues, in a sense, with the theatre score to one of J.B. Priestley’s most highly respected plays. In total the music lasted 35 minutes and was for soprano and orchestra, though not all of it was by Britten, with some orchestrations fashioned by the musical director Ernest Irving.
However a concert suite exists, more obviously of Britten’s hand and assembled by Paul Hindmarsh. There are six numbers that work their way through the play. The plot concerns Robert Johnson, a character who has recently died, but Priestley focuses in on his time spent in the ‘Bardo’ state, half way between life and death. A number of issues of morality arise through the course of the play, with greed the focus of Incinerators’ Ballet, where wads of bank notes are burned to music that Britten recycled for his Diversions for piano left-hand and orchestra.
There is a lot of angst in Britten’s music in this period, and the story Johnson Over Jordan offers him another way of letting it out. This is a bold score, with sharp-edged orchestration that uses the brass in a particularly piercing way, and benefits from the percussive use of the orchestral piano.
At times it sounds very like a Mahler funeral march, especially the first movement of the Symphony No.3, but the harmonic language is ‘newer’. The main theme, recurring between each number, finds Britten alternating between minor and major key – the very same keys that alternate throughout the forthcoming Violin Concerto. The Incinerators’ Ballet music is pungent and at times aggressive.
The rather salacious music to The Spider is a wonderful pastiche, with a winding clarinet line that recalls the very start of Rhapsody in Blue before the saxophone and then swooning strings take over. It is as if Britten has already arrived in Harlem, with bits of Gershwin and Weill added to the already heady mix, and a series of tempo fluctuations helps greatly in performance.
A really gutsy piece of music, enthusiastically recommended to any Britten aficionado that doesn’t know it yet!
English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Both these versions have a terrific body to their sound. If anything the English Chamber Orchestra under Steuart Bedford are even more incisive, with a sinewy violin texture that sounds great, but the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox have the bigger, more widescreen attention of the Chandos engineers, and that suits the Mahlerian episodes very well. Either version is a very solid bet.
Steuart Bedford and the English Chamber Orchestra can be found on track 7 of this album, which includes Joanna MacGregor’s recording of the Piano Concerto. Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra run from track 26 on this album, after the Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra and the Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A Time There Was’.
Also written in 1939: Prokofiev – Alexander Nevsky
Next up: Ballad of Heroes, Op.14