Listening to Britten – The trees they grow so high

the-trees-they-grow-so-high
Drive of a Country House, with Trees and Figures by Joseph Glover. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The trees they grow so high (Somerset folksong) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 1 no.5 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre March 1942, Britten aged 28)

Dedication Bobby Rothman
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)
The trees they grow so high (Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano))

The trees they grow so high (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s source on this occasion is an extremely popular traditional tune, but the words reminded him of Bobby Rothman, David Rothman’s son, to whom the song is dedicated. This is one of Britten’s more puzzling friendships, but it was ultimately a chaste one – as Bobby himself confirmed – and is covered in much greater depth by Humphrey Carpenter and John Bridcut.

Among the many artists to have recorded this tune are Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Martin Carthy, Pentangle, Sarah Brightman and Steeleye Span. Britten’s arrangement predates all these, of course, and is described by Bridcut as building a ‘haunting commentary’ through the piano line.

Thoughts

This is, ultimately, a sad and uncomfortable song. The sorrowful, unaccompanied first verse gradually expands with the help of the piano, whose economical part is downcast and refuses to resolve properly in both parts, before the voice is left marooned once again at the end.

While some of the folksong arrangements find Britten at his most mischievous and humourous, this is most definitely the other side of the coin, the composer lost in a sombre reflection and temporarily beyond consolation.

It is easy to see why folksong lovers would reject this and go in search of a more traditionally bound arrangement, for Britten’s take is much more personal to his own style, showing how flexible the tune really is.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Benjamin Luxon (baritone), David Willison (piano) (Chandos)

There is no version by Pears and Britten of The trees they grow so high, the only song they did not record from the composer’s first set of folksongs, but there are plenty of others. Langridge and Johnson are predictably strong, the latter’s limpid piano a complement to the tenor’s sorrowful tone. Anthony Rolfe Johnson is closer to the mic in his recording, which heightens the intensity.

Lorna Anderson is much faster and strangely upbeat, the triple time lilt of the dance becoming a paradox that results in what is almost a completely different song, a whole minute faster than the others.

Spotify

This is a popular folksong arrangement on record. Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are here, while Robert Tear and Philip Ledger can be found here. The baritone Benjamin Luxon and pianist David Willison are here.

You can compare these with a version made by Sarah Brightman and Geoffrey Parsons, available by clicking here, and the Pentangle arrangement – beautifully sung – which is here. Joan Baez, singing with a rare purity, is here, while Steeleye Span offer a fuller band version under the title Long-A-Growing

Also written in 1942: Schoenberg – Piano Concerto, Op.42

Next up: Movement for clarinet and orchestra

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One Response to Listening to Britten – The trees they grow so high

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

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