The Bonny Earl O’Moray (Scottish Tune) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 1 no.3 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 11 December 1940, Britten aged 27)
Dedication Mildred Titley (a psychiatrist at the Long Island home where Britten and Pears stayed)
Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
The Bonny Earl O’Moray (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Background and Critical Reception
The third of Britten’s first set of folksong arrangements, The Bonny Earl O’Moray represents a desire to represent each corner of the British Isles, and not just England. It begins a relationship with the Scottish dialect that lasted through the rest of his life, stretching as far as his cycle of Robert Burns settings, The Birthday Hansel, in 1975. Britten set this ballad for high voice and orchestra, an arrangement completed in December 1942.
The tune itself appears to have originated in the 17th century. Britten appears not to have used all the text, concentrating on the response to the Earl’s murder. ‘They hae slain the Earl o’Moray, and laid him on the green’, reads the first verse.
Britten’s setting is grand in the extreme, a regal funeral march that is an invitation for the singer to completely let rip against a piano accompaniment that has grand pretensions too. He moves between the major and minor key rather like Schubert used to do, keeping the listener guessing until the downcast end in the minor.
I’ll be honest though, this one was a struggle! There is no doubt that it performs its service of remembering a gallant Earl, but it just feels too overblown, especially when sung by a vibrato-rich soprano. If sung by a tenor with an authentic accent – the Dundee singer Mark Wilde for example – the effect is much better, however.
The orchestral arrangement is a sympathetic and stately one.
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Richard Armstrong (EMI)
Mark Wilde (tenor), David Owen Norris (piano)
Britten and Pears are particularly good in this one, the singer’s clear voice a real asset, although his accent is a little compromised. The sopranos in the list tend towards bigger and bolder vibrato. Mark Wilde’s version, with David Owen Norris, is part of a more authentic and very commendable collection of Britten’s Scottish songs, compiled for Naxos.
Also written in 1940: Eisler – Chamber Symphony
Next up: O can ye sew cushions?