Listening to Britten – Calypso


Grand Central Station, New York, in the 1930s (credit not known)

Calypso – cabaret song for voice and piano (Summer 1939, Britten aged 25)

Dedication not known
Text W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 2′

Background and Critical Reception

Another cabaret song for Hedli Anderson, with words by W.H. Auden. The geographical text reflects the fact that both were temporarily separated, with Britten still in Quebec with Peter Pears, and Auden in New York with Christopher Isherwood.

It is the fourth surviving cabaret song of Britten’s, though there are two others – Give up love and I’m a jam tart – that remain at large.

It is worth reproducing Philip Reed’s program note for the first installment of Malcolm Martineau’s Britten songs survey on Onyx. In it, he says, ‘They are splendid examples of the genre, which not only provide ample evidence of the composer’s and poet’s wit and high spirits but also are wholly characteristic of a particular type of vernacular music that resulted from the collaboration between these two brilliantly gifted young men in the 1930s, both of whom were passionate admirers of Cole Porter’.

Thoughts

In his cabaret songs Britten really lets himself go – and Calypso is a great example where music and words match up like hand and glove.

Auden’s text makes the song. ‘Fly like the aeroplane, don’t pull up short till you brake for Grand Central Station, New York’, is the urgent verse, and Britten responds in kind, with a terrific nervous energy in the piano part and breathless vocal. The song drives onward, becoming ever more frenzied, until it reaches its destination and we all let out a sigh of relief!

Recordings used
Mary Carewe (vocals), Blue Noise (piano and instruments) (ASV)
Della Jones (mezzo-soprano), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Caryl Hughes (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

There is a massive contrast between Mary Carewe, who opts to half-whisper her opening verses, and Della Jones, who goes for a much more full-bodied approach. Both approaches are effective, but Carewe really comes into her own in the closing moments, where she seemingly chooses to imitate the train herself. Hughes is some way in between, a good version but less urgent than the other two.

Spotify

Jones and Bedford are here, part of the continually excellent collection of Auden settings by Britten and Lennox Berkeley on Naxos. Carewe and Blue Noise are here, while Caryl Hughes is here, on the second volume of Malcolm Martineau’s valuable survey of Britten songs for Onyx.

Also written in 1939: William Schuman – American Festival Overture

Next up: Young Apollo, Op.16

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