Listening to Britten – The ash grove


A Grove of Trees near a Stream with a Man Fishing from a Boat by William Henry Crome. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The ash grove (Welsh Tune) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 1 no.6 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 20 February 1941, Britten aged 27)

Dedication Beata Mayer (daughter of Dr William and Elizabeth Mayer, previous folksong devotees)
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)
The ash grove (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))
The ash grove (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

The sixth of Britten’s first set of folksong arrangements, The ash grove is Britten’s first setting of a traditional Welsh tune. It was dedicated to Beata Mayer.

The tune itself appears to originate from the very early 19th century, and it is a popular number that was also set by Roger Quilter, among many others.

Britten’s folksong arrangements were a big hit as encore pieces in America. ‘I have arranged a few British folksongs which have been a ‘wow’ wherever performed so far!’ was his exclamation. Lewis Foreman’s booklet note for the Hyperion release of the complete folksong arrangements details a concert with Peter Pears in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 14 December 1941, with The ash grove performed as part of a group of four.

Thoughts

A deceptively simple beauty. The graceful melody gets the ideal response from Britten here, as he uses one of his favourite musical forms – the canon – to keep the melody on the piano running at a distance of half a bar behind the voice.

In mood the song channels the spirit of Schubert, the graceful but slightly watery piano part setting up a mood of reflection, until later in the song when voice and piano part company, at which point the piano heads into a completely different key. Britten’s genius is fully at work here, and The ash grove becomes less folk song, more English ‘Lied’.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)

Pears and Britten give a wonderful performance of The ash grove, the parts seamlessly blending together. Langridge and Johnson are equally fine, Johnson’s experience of Schubert bringing across the parallel between the two composers with consummate ease. For Hyperion, Jamie MacDougall and Malcolm Martineau are a little more perky in their execution.

Spotify

Britten and Pears are here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are here. As another alternative, Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake can be heard here

Also written in 1941: Ireland – Sarnia

Next up: Paul Bunyan, Op.17

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