Listening to Britten – Les illuminations, Op.18

(c)Brian Hogwood

Les illuminations, Op.18 – songs for high voice and orchestra (March – 25 October 1939, Britten aged 25)

1 Fanfare
2 Villes
3a Phrase
3b Antique (‘To K.H.W.S.’)
4 Royauté
5 Marine
6 Interlude (‘To E.M.’)
7 Being beauteous (‘To P.N.L.P.’)
8 Parade
9 Départ

Discarded Numbers (edited by Colin Matthews)
La cascade sonnes
Discarded: Un prince était vexé (unfinished)

Dedication Sophie Wyss
Text Arthur Rimbaud
Language French
Duration 25′


The NMC recording of Sandrine Piau and the Northern Sinfonia with Thomas Zehetmair includes the three discarded numbers. All can be heard here. Meanwhile the below clips are all of Sir Peter Pears, singing while Britten himself conducts the English Chamber Orchestra. With thanks to Decca.

1 Fanfare

2 Villes

3a Phase-

3b Antique

4 Royauté

5 Marine

6 Interlude

7 Being beauteous

8 Parade

9 Départ

Background and Critical Reception

Both composer and poet were adjusting to new environments when Les illuminations was published. Britten was still settling in the US, while Arthur Rimbaud was adjusting to London – and the experience of city life leaves its mark on the often restless writing.

The collection of songs had a complicated genesis for Britten, who wrote some in London and completed the cycle in the USA. He did not hear the first performance, given in London by dedicatee Sophie Wyss on 30 January 1940, with Boyd Neel and his string orchestra.

Although Britten did not compose Les illuminations for Peter Pears, the tenor sang it on many occasions, and the song Being beauteous became the first instance where feelings between the two were expressed in a firm dedication of music, although it should be pointed out the music itself was initially written with Wulff Scherchen still in Britten’s mind!

The cycle is highly regarded by many Britten observers and scholars, and has become a favourite of the soprano repertoire. Michael Kennedy sees it as another stage in his development as an operatic composer. ‘It has been said many times that Britten found his way to the operatic manner by clarifying his own style through his settings of English, French and Italian poetry’, he writes in his biography of Britten. ‘It would be truer to say that the language and imagery of the foreign poetry, notably Rimbaud’s prose-poetry with its hectic and fantastic pictures of life and vice in industrialized society, extended Britten’s range by stimulating his expressive facilities to match new regions of the emotional map’.

While those statements might need to be read a few times to become clear, Kennedy’s other thoughts are more direct. ‘In Les illuminations one can hear (almost see) Britten changing from the pamphleteering protestor of 1938 into the more withdrawn, self-communing figure who exiled himself – perhaps, he thought then, for ever – to the New World’.

Humphrey Carpenter highlights the opening Fanfare as ‘a pointer to the highly personal nature of what is to follow’, while Britten himself praises the text of Villes for its ‘very good depiction of the chaotic modern city life’ – something it is acknowledged he reflected in the music. Michael Kennedy sees Antique as ‘a setting which serves as an illustration of all that is meant by Britten’s magical ability to take the simplest means and transport the listener to a new musical world. This is the Britten gift which entranced his contemporaries – ‘it’s so simple, so beautiful, why hasn’t anyone thought of it before?”

Sticking with Kennedy, he then notes that ‘much of the singer’s part is a monotone, whereas the impression one receives is of a vocal line swooping and darting like the swallow’s flight’.


In the rarefied atmosphere of Les illuminations, Britten shows his continuing development as a dramatic composer. A young man’s confidence courses through the veins of this piece, whether in the bold string writing, building still further on the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, or the surety of his writing for soprano voice.

My preference – very slightly – remains for soprano over tenor in this work, with the added brightness and vibrato the female voice is able to offer especially in the highest notes. Having a native French speaker also helps for hearing the text fully, despite Rimbaud’s occasional nods to London, where he was living at the time of writing.

Musically there is a lot to enjoy here. The bold Fanfare and the opening of Marine bring back the trumpet evocations found in Young Apollo and The Company of Heaven, while the singer’s motto, ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’ (‘I alone hold the key to this savage parade’) becomes an earworm par excellence.

Despite the flushes of youth – and Being beauteous is especially red-faced with its text to make a grown man blush! – there are deeply felt introverted moments too, the closing Départ especially.

Colin Matthews’ orchestration of the three ‘outtakes’ adds a valuable footnote to the cycle, proving that even in his discarded material Britten was hitting a consistently high standard, Aube especially.

Les illuminations, then, is an intoxicating concert piece, fiercely expressive and bursting with vitality, with just a shade of darkness underneath. It is a truly heady mix.

Recordings used

with soprano
Sandrine Piau, Northern Sinfonia / Thomas Zehetmair (NMC)
Heather Harper, Northern Sinfonia / Sir Neville Marriner (EMI)
Susan Gritton, BBCS ymphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Sally Matthews, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (LPO)
Barbara Hannigan, Amsterdam Sinfonietta / Candida Thompson (Channel Classics)

with tenor
Sir Peter Pears, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Ian Bostridge, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
Toby Spence, Scottish Ensemble / Clio Gould (Linn)

Sandrine Piau’s recording has the natural French affinity that best informs this piece, and further bolsters its claims with the inclusion of the three Colin Matthews-orchestrated offshoots. The Northern Sinfonia strings are enjoyably coarse under Zehetmair.

Heather Harper is superb, her ringing tone and clear diction both marking her out, while Dame Felicity Lott and Susan Gritton are extremely competitive too. Sally Matthews enjoys the drama of a live performance with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, where close mic’d strings reveal the inner workings of Britten’s writing.

For the tenor version Pears is self-recommending but Bostridge is superb as a modern version, heavily accented at times but winningly so. Toby Spence should also be mentioned, in yet another strong field of Britten recordings.


Unfortunately a lot of the versions discussed above are not available on Spotify, but this playlist offers four versions – a different one from Pears, with the New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Goossens on Eloquence, then Sally Matthews, Ian Bostridge and Toby Spence.

Also written in 1939: Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence

Next up: The knotting song

This entry was posted in French, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Songs with orchestra and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Listening to Britten – Les illuminations, Op.18

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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