Listening to Britten – La noël passée


Snow scene in the South of France by Josephine Bowes. Used with thanks to the Bowes museum.

La noël passée (The Orphan and King Henry) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 2 no.1 (France)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (December 1942, Britten aged 29)

Dedication Arnold and Humphrey Gyde
Text Traditional
Language French
Duration 2′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
La noël passée (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Britten turned to France for his second collection of arrangements of traditional folksongs. This was thought to be as a present to the soprano Sophie Wyss, who had suggested the idea, but who was now rather less of a concern for Britten given his performing and partnership with Peter Pears. The songs in this set, dedicated to her sons, are therefore seen as something of a parting gift.

The exact source of these songs has never been traced, but is thought to have been a book given to Britten by Wyss. She it was that gave the first performance of many of the songs, but their publication was held up until 1946 due to a shortage of paper during the war. There is also a version with string orchestra, which appears not to have been recorded yet.

Thoughts

There is a darker side to many of Britten’s folksong settings, and it comes to the fore in the first of his French collection. Though he cleverly moves between minor key verses and a major key refrain, it is the former that comes back to haunt us with every appearance. The words are key for that, too, with the starving orphan child painting a very strong impression at the beginning of the song.

Eventually a brighter mood is found, but this is a song that brings his penchant for writing funeral marches into direct opposition with the traditional melodic source. It is a tension that runs throughout the song.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Anne Sofie von Otter (soprano), Bengt Forsberg (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum)

Philip Langridge sings with relatively little vibrato to begin with, and leans slightly on the first beat of the bar in the chorus. His is a sombre version, with Johnson’s gruff piano chords, though glimpses of light come through in the chorus. Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg operate in G minor, a whole third removed from the original key, which lends the song an even darker colour. Mark Padmore brings a brighter tone to his excellent interpretation, while Jamie MacDougall is a little more airy. All are very well sung!

Spotify

Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg are here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are here.

Also written in 1942: Bing Crosby – White Christmas

Next up: Voici le printemps

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