An introduction to Britten and the folksong – a new take on old music?

On The River Yare, Norfolk
On The River Yare, Norfolk by Alfred Stannard. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

Listening to Britten is not long underway with the composer’s realizations of Purcell’s music, but now we approach another major group in the Britten compositional ‘oeuvre’ – the folksongs.

Again these are going to be anything but straightforward, in the thinking behind the music at least – but the music itself should be free of complication, if that makes sense! Much of it is for a single singer and piano, though Britten did broaden his outlook to include some duets and then moved on to harp and guitar as the accompanying instruments. He even arranged some for orchestra.

In the 1930s Britten had already set out his position on folksongs. He was averse to Vaughan Williams’ treatment of them – in accordance with his teacher Frank Bridge – but aligned himself more readily with figures like Moeran, with whom he spent some time playing folksong arrangements, and Percy Grainger, who he and Peter Pears greatly admired. When he came to set them himself, Britten always had a performer or performers in mind.

His sources are diverse. Each of the four ‘home nations’ is well represented, and a one of the seven volumes is devoted to France. In making these arrangements he addressed the issue of painful homesickness, keenly felt during the composition of the first volume in New York. He also addressed the functionality of encores, for these arrangements became staple parts of his concerts with Peter Pears, often given as written-in encores.

Again the folksongs are a very divisive part of Britten’s output. Some of the more traditional folk enthusiasts are not keen on his settings because they are seen to depart from the spirit of the original. Yet perhaps the most mature response, comes from Vaughan Williams, who Donald Mitchell quotes in a very fine introduction to the settings as released on Collins Classics back in 1995:

‘Are we old fogeys of the Folk Song movement getting into a rut? If so, it is very good for us to be pulled out of it by such fiery young steeds as Benjamin Britten and Herbert Murrill’(then head of music at the BBC). ‘We see one side of a folk song, they see the other’. A gracious opening, from which he continued, ‘The tune’s the thing with which we’ll catch the conscience of the composer. Do these settings spring from a love of the tune? Then, whatever our personal reaction may be we must respect them’.

In a roundabout way it could be interpreted that Vaughan Williams didn’t necessarily like Britten’s approach, but he was more than prepared to allow room for it. That much was evident in his conclusion. ‘Welcome, then, the younger generation who will push along the highway, turning now to the right, now to the left, each divagation balancing the other so that in the end the straight line is intact’.

In his chapter on the folksongs for The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, Eric Roseberry also offers a very useful introduction. ‘What makes this oeuvre distinct’, he says, ‘is its absolute removal from the kind of ‘Englishness’ that may be associated with the Edwardian pomp and pageantry of Elgar, or later characterized in the watery meadows and ‘gaffers on the green’ modal meanderings and rustic frolics of the school of English folklorists. Britten’s was altogether a sharper, less complacent, more quizzical, personally sensitive ‘national’ temperament, alert to the expression of his chosen texts, both verbal and musical’.

That makes sense. Up until now the text has always been the driving factor in Britten’s song writing, so it stands to reason that it should also determine a lot of his choices in folksong arrangements. This is backed up by Roseberry’s next observation. ‘In selecting his ‘folk’ material Britten was no purist – the sources of the tunes in the first volume are not given, and in later volumes he was content to rely on the ‘secondary’ sources of collector-arrangers like Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams’.

Roseberry highlights Down By The Salley Gardens, the very first setting, as ‘the first of many ‘art song’ transformations in these volumes, and it shows Britten as composer-arranger (rather than a folksong-collector) who is concerned in the first place with realizing the emotional content of his text and taking the tune as he finds it from whatever available source, ‘authentic’ or ‘corrupt’’.

Like the Purcell realizations, the folksong settings have their sceptics. Fiona Talkington put it very simply when interviewed for this blog. ‘I find the folksong settings quite difficult because that’s not how I came to folk songs’, she said. ‘I’ve talked to musicians who hate the folk songs, but then you listen to them and there is a bit of soul. I haven’t gone back to them yet’.

With these considerations, as in the Purcell settings it is important to approach Britten’s treatment of folksongs with a very open mind. The text will be as important as the tune, and there won’t be many pastoral scenes of the like often unfairly identified with Vaughan Williams. (There may in the chosen artwork to go with them, but that’s a different story!)

It will be fascinating – and hopefully entertaining – to see how Britten goes about treating the tunes from the heart of the countries concerned and especially his home country, no matter where he might have been in the world at the time!

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