Listening to Britten – The foggy, foggy dew


Cloudy Landscape by John Constable. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The foggy, foggy dew (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 3 no.5 (British Isles)) – folksong arrangement for high or medium voice and piano (pre 18 November 1942, Britten aged 29)

Dedication Joan Cross
Text Traditional, Suffolk
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)
The foggy, foggy drew (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

(Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

The third volume of Britten’s folksong arrangements were not published until 1945, but The foggy, foggy dew was the first of the seven to be completed. The whole volume was dedicated to Joan Cross, creator of the role of Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes.

The foggy, foggy dew it is one of Britten’s most famous arrangements, but it quickly incurred the wrath of Peter Pears’s uncle, who wrote to the tenor expressing his outrage at the story behind the song, in which a young man fathers a child with a young maiden, who disappears, leaving him a single parent. Britten’s response to his complaint – an aside rather than a direct response I would assume! – was that he was a ‘dirty old man’.

The Wikipedia entry for this song details some censorship of the song on account of its content, saying that ‘BBC Radio restricted broadcast of the song to programmes covering folk tunes or the works of Benjamin Britten’.

Thoughts

Try as I might, I couldn’t warm to this setting. I don’t think the performances have anything to do with this, it’s more the story that I did not warm to, and what I perceived to be quite a setting that feels a bit stuffy, despite the humourous tints around the edges.

Britten’s piano is appropriately cheeky, offering a nod and a wink to the listener outside of its Schubert influence, and it’s a memorable tune, for sure, that sticks in the head for a while after listening.

Having said that, something here just did not click in my head for a song whose popularity is clear to see. Maybe it will in time!

Recordings used

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

Pears and Britten perform this with a light spring in its step, clearly enjoying the very slight twists and turns. Britten’s playing in particular is delightful. The versions from Langridge and MacDougall are very fine too, though Langridge has a natural affinity with the folksong settings, a flexibility with his voice, that makes him the best choice.

Spotify

Pears and Britten are here, while Langridge and Johnson can be found here. Christopher Maltman, a fine English baritone, is found in partnership with Julius Drake here.

Also written in 1942: Rawsthorne – Piano Concerto No.1 (revised version)

Next up: La noël passée

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