Listening to Britten – Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse


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

Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse (The King is gone a-hunting) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 2 no.4 (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 2’30”

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

This is the fourth of Britten’s eight French folksong settings, and one of the five that he arranged for high voice and orchestra.

This is a hunting song that, in Eric Roseberry’s words, ‘tells a simple tale of true love that spurns riches’, as the King, while out hunting, doesn’t find anything. Nothing apart from a Shepherdess, that is!

Thoughts

The grand occasion of the hunt is vividly portrayed by the upstanding staccato piano part of Britten’s arrangement. The song divides into two, with quick, bold verses melting away when the King happens across ‘my adorable Shepherdess, who sleeps in the rushes’. The the mood is languorous and distracted, and the piano changes to rippling chords. The orchestral version is even more vividly coloured, with muted trumpets outlining the hunt before the silvery tones of the strings take over.

There are echoes of both Schubert and Mahler here, though Britten makes the song his own with some deftly chromatic movements on the piano. As with his best folksong settings, it is simple and extremely effective – and strangely moving, too.

Recordings used

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

Pears and Britten together are a joy in this song, especially Britten’s very deliberate signing-off at the end, drawn out for maximum effect. Pears’s tone suits the song perfectly. Felicity Lott’s bright soprano and Graham Johnson’s thoughtful piano are a great match, too, while Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg are a little cooler. In the orchestral version, Felicity Palmer is pitted against bright muted trumpets as the hunt departs, and a beautifully glassy string texture when the music slows down.

Spotify

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten can be heard here, while Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson are here. Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg can be heard here

Also written in 1942: Glenn Miller – Moonlight Cocktail

Next up: La belle est au jardin d’amour

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