Listening to Britten – Paul Bunyan, Op.17


Paul Bunyan by Bob McMahon. Used with many thanks to the artist, whose website can be explored here

Paul Bunyan – Operetta in two acts and a prologue, Op.17 (November 1939 – April 1941, Britten aged 26-27)

Text W.H. Auden
Duration 115′

Audio and Video clips

There is very little online content on Paul Bunyan, in either audio or video, but to set the scene, here is a link to the page of a current production from the British Youth Opera. Meanwhile below is ‘A message from our leader’, a preview to Welsh National Opera’s recent production:


The plot (abridged from the booklet for the Chandos recording by Richard Hickox)

First we hear a Prologue, where the birth of Paul Bunyan, a giant of a man, takes place under a blue moon. Bunyan will transform the forest, creating a new way of life on the land – but because of his size he is never seen on stage.

Act 1 begins with a Narrator who fills in part one of Bunyan’s life story, before we join Bunyan on a recruitment drive for lumberjacks, a foreman, a cook and a bookkeeper, Inkslinger. He also acquires some pets – two dogs and a cat, before the first of three ‘goodnight’ scenes. The narrator returns to tell of Bunyan’s search for a wife and children, which yields a daughter, Tiny. The lumberjacks start their work but grow tired of a diet of soup and beans and hire a new cook. Their foreman, Hel Helson, withdraws into himself.

Act 2 finds the lumberjacks aspiring to be farmers, but brings tension with Helson to a head, and his dissatisfaction leads to a fight with Bunyan himself. Meanwhile Bunyan’s daughter Tiny finds love with Slim, the new cook. A third ballad from the narrator tells of continuing successes across the land for Bunyan, who is reconciled with Helson. A great Christmas party is thrown, the marriage of Tiny and Slim is celebrated, and Bunyan finally reveals his full identity.

Background and Critical Reception

Only in 1974 did Britten feel happy enough in his operetta Paul Bunyan to give it an opus number. That was the year of revival for a work whose previous public appearances had been limited to a week at the Columbia University in New York, 1941. The institution had commissioned the work from Britten and Auden, and it stands as their only full-scale collaboration on stage.

So why the hibernation? Firstly there was a hostile critical reception, headed by the composer Virgil Thomson, whose ‘flaccid and spineless’ label for Auden’s libretto went with an ‘undistinguished’ verdict on Britten’s music. ‘I never did figure out the theme’, he said. There was little time to work on a revision, with Britten and Auden engrossed in new projects, and the idea dropped. Britten and Pears did enjoy the music in private, however, and Pears took on the role of Johnny Inkslinger when the BBC broadcast premiere took place in 1976.

Michael Kennedy hits the nail on the head in his analysis of Paul Bunyan, asserting that growing tensions in the artistic partnership of Britten and Auden were now coming to a head. Part of the problem was Auden’s vocabulary, which was now too complicated to survive musical setting. Kennedy quotes the Love Song, which Britten eventually removed. ‘Adiposity’ rhymed with ‘verbosity’. Very apt!

To his credit Auden took the blame, stating in 1963 that ‘I knew nothing whatsoever about opera or what is required of a librettist’. When Paul Bunyan was revived, Britten found unexpected clarity and even acclaim. Speaking to Donald Mitchell, he said ‘I simply hadn’t remembered that it was such a strong piece’.

Paul Kildea spends less time on the operetta, perceiving it as ‘not really sure what it wants to be’, but in his booklet notes for the Chandos recording Philip Reed sees the ‘quintessentially American’ work of the composer’s North American years’, and praises the spontaneous melodies, not to mention the remarkable prophecy of Britten’s later style occurs when the ‘moon turns blue’ for Bunyan’s birth. He also draws out the relevance of Britten’s references to the gamelan music, which he had already played with Colin McPhee.

In a piece for Faber’s The Britten Companion, meanwhile, Wilfrid Mellers welcomes ‘not so much a rejection of a moribund Europe as a discovery of a New World that, in being new, was a potential Eden’.

Oliver sees Paul Bunyan as a clear forerunner, not just for Peter Grimes, but also Billy Budd and Albert Herring. He concludes by saying, ‘It has been customary to date the renovation of the idiomatic American musical from the production of Oklahoma!. It seems that Paul Bunyan has a strong claim to be this historical watershed’.

Thoughts

Paul Bunyan reveals once again the composer of the Cabaret Songs and the film scores, with the relative weight of the Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem retreating to the background. Americanizing his sound with guitar, blues, throaty lumberjack choruses and wide open orchestration, Britten uses lean and slightly jazzy accompaniments that herald Bernstein and take their lead from Copland and Weill.

There are some genuinely touching moments. The giant is mostly friendly, his need to please and satisfy endearing, and this carries the plot, though it does mean dramatic tension is limited and finds its apex in the fight of the second act. Even this ends up outside the bounds of the stage, the audience drawn to the love duet between Tiny and Slim instead.

Britten’s music is often hugely enjoyable. The Lumberjacks’ Chorus in the first act, with its nods to Shostakovich, is a thumbs-in-braces highlight. The cooks’ duet, each trying to outdo each other at opposite ends of the vocal scale, is also a gem, but so is the profound music given to Hel Helson, forced to examine his whole reasons for being in the second act. Meanwhile the ‘good night’ scenes from Bunyan himself are softly comforting, the night music of Copland brought to mind. The love music between Tiny and Slim is laced with affection, while the final question of Inkslinger, ‘Paul, who are you?’, brings the work to a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the abundance of melodies leads to a number that remain lodged in the brain for days! Yet here they are refreshing, energetic and given with bright-eyed promise, the underlying message one of positivity for America, despite Auden’s complicated and often double-edged messages of morality. Paul Bunyan, then, seems to succeed in spite of rather than because of its libretto – and the credit for that falls wholly into the arms of Britten.

Recordings used

1. Pop Wagner (baritone – Narrator), James Lawless (speaker – The Voice of John Bunyan), Dan Dressen (tenor – Johnny Inkslinger), Elisabeth Comeaux Nelson (soprano – Tiny), Clifton Ware (tenor – Hot Biscuit Slim), Vern Sutton (tenor – Sam Sharkey), Merle Fristad (bass – Ben Benny), James Bohn (baritone – Hel Helson), James McKeel (bass – John Shears), Maria Jette (soprano – Fido), Sue Herber (mezzo-soprano – Moppet), Janis Hardy (mezzo-soprano – Poppet), Chorus and Orchestra of the Plymouth Music Series / Philip Brunelle (EMI)

2. Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone – Narrator), Kenneth Cranham (speaker – The Voice of John Bunyan), Kurt Streit (tenor – Johnny Inkslinger), Susan Gritton (soprano – Tiny), Kenneth Cranham (tenor – Hot Biscuit Slim), Francis Egerton (tenor – Sam Sharkey), Graeme Broadbent (baritone – Ben Benny), Jeremy White (bass – Hel Helson), Roderick Earle (bass – John Shears), Lillian Watson (soprano – Fido), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano – Moppet), Kurt Streit (mezzo-soprano – Poppet), Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Only two recordings of Paul Bunyan have been made to date, which is something of a shock in this ‘record everything’ age. A recent production by Welsh National Youth Opera and one next year from the Royal Opera House (more information can be found here indicate that coming years may expand the discography, but for now we have authentic American (Philip Brunelle) and Anglo-American (Richard Hickox). The latter is strangely effective, for after all Britten and Auden were English artists imposing their craft on America, so the slightly contrived Americanisms are all the more authentic.

Brunelle’s is the more confident and assertive interpretation, though, its jokes are easier to laugh at and the soloists sound just a tiny bit more real – if less technically accomplished than those for Hickox.

Spotify

The Hickox recording can be found by clicking here

Also written in 1941: Shostakovich – Symphony no.7 in C major Op.60, ‘Leningrad’

Next up: Matinées musicales, Op.24

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Paul Bunyan, Op.17

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – the American dream | Good Morning Britten

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