Listening to Britten – La belle est au jardin d’amour


Study of Birch Trees by Josephine Bowes. Used with many thanks to The Bowes Museum

La belle est au jardin d’amour (Beauty in Love’s Garden) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 2 no.5 (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 3′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
La belle est au jardin d’amour (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

This fifth of eight Britten settings of French folksongs is described by Eric Roseberry as a ‘pastoral idyll’.

Very little is written about this or indeed many of the French folksong settings, but this was another that Britten chose to arrange for orchestra too, specifically for the baritone Martial Singher, between 1945 and 1946.

Thoughts

There is a bittersweet end to this rather beautiful song. Initially the mood is one of contentment, with an airy, 19th-century style piano accompaniment setting the scene, but gradually the rather sorrowful mood of the text comes through, and the music reacts accordingly by switching to the minor key.

This is a very simple song, easy for anyone to sing, and its impact is understated but very attractive. Ultimately it finds peace, too, as the recurring piano motif comes back again to settle the mood.

The orchestral version loses a little of the intimacy found with the piano, but is nonetheless attractively scored, and in the minor key uses ghostly woodwind that recall a little of Mahler’s orchestral song settings.

Recordings used

Sophie Wyss (soprano), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)
Anne Sofie von Otter (soprano), Bengt Forsberg (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Felicity Palmer (soprano), Endymion Ensemble / John Whitfield (EMI)

Pears and Britten are imperious here, the verses of the song beautifully framed by the real refrain that is Britten’s piano accompaniment. Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson take their time to good effect, while Jamie MacDougall is a little more direct.

Spotify

Pears and Britten can be heard here, while Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson are here. The orchestral version is sung by baritone Thomas Allen, with Steuart Bedford conducting the Northern Sinfonia, and can be found here

Also written in 1942: Fats Waller – Jitterbug Waltz

Next up: Il est quelqu’un sur terre

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