Study for ‘Over The Top’ (1918) by John Nash, used courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Ballad of Heroes, Op.14 – for tenor (or soprano) solo, chorus and orchestra (28 February 1939 – 29 March 1939, Britten aged 25)
1 Funeral march (Randall Swingler)
2 Scherzo – Dance of Death (W.H. Auden)
3 Recitative and Choral (Randall Swingler and W.H. Auden)
Dedication Montagu and Enid Slater
Text Randall Swingler and W.H. Auden as above
Background and Critical Reception
Ballad of Heroes was written for the Festival of Music For The People, and was conducted on its premiere by the composer Constant Lambert, who marshalled the combined forces of the Co-Operative and Labour Choirs with the London Symphony Orchestra.
As John Bridcut notes, the work is not an explicit vehicle for Britten’s pacifism – more to honour British members of the International Brigade who had volunteered in the Spanish Civil War of 1937, Auden among them.
Britten sets two texts each by Auden and Randall Swingler, compacted into a three movement design that points towards the Sinfonia da Requiem. Paul Kildea describes his setting of Auden’s Danse macabre as ‘a portent of what was to come if humans stood at their doors, wiping their hands on their aprons, shrugging their shoulders at the descent into war.
Several of Britten’s musical preoccupations return. The second movement is a passacaglia, the first a funeral march – and while the text is softer death and war are still the principal subjects. Yet despite these familiar templates Britten commentators see this largely as a strong if slightly naive piece – except, that is, for Michael Kennedy, who highlights the ‘glib response to the even more glib text’.
Ballad of Heroes is no shrinking violet. There is outright anger in this piece, tinged also with a strong sense of uncertainty. This is likely to have been fuelled by the departure, a month previously, of Auden and Isherwood for New York, not to mention the ever-increasing hostilities felt across Europe and Britten’s fears for his own country.
The Dance of Death is the eye opener here. Using the demonic scherzo from King Arthur, it adds Auden’s unforgettable text – ‘it’s farewell to the drawing room’s civilized cry’ – to music simmering with resentment and indignation, the rat-a-tat of the strings unmistakably like gunfire. It is a tremendous ‘moto perpetuo’, and the full force of Britten’s anger is unleashed just over 2 minutes in. This is absolute confirmation that he can serve large forces with immensely dramatic material, but also a reminder that said material is unlikely to be comfortable to deal with!
Britten’s preoccupation with funeral marches continues to the first movement of the piece – but this is a poignant piece of music, surprisingly similar in feel to the opening of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius – one of the few Elgar pieces Britten liked, whilst displaying some of the harmonic traits then heard in later choral works.
The trumpet fanfares towards the end of the Choral provide the keenest anticipation yet of the War Requiem, still 23 years away, and these are blended in with textures, a key and an atmosphere that share similar feelings to Mahler’s Resurrection symphony.
It is surprising that Ballad of Heroes is not better known, although its length probably prohibits regular concert performance, being neither a ‘main piece’ or a prelude. It is, however, a very important piece in Britten’s output, for it shows the composer’s ambition with large forms, but also his mastery of them to channel his feelings and responses to text.
Robert Tear, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI Classics)
Martyn Hill (tenor), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Both Rattle and Hickox offer terrifically exciting versions, the latter being the most expansive on his tempo choices, and this gives the music even more gravitas. Robert Tear is excellent for the Recitative and Choral.
This playlist brings together both available versions of Ballad of Heroes.
Also written in 1939: Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez
Next up: The Sword in the Stone
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