Listening to Britten – Il est quelqu’un sur terre


Cornfield near Calais by Josephine Bowes. Used with many thanks to The Bowes Museum

Il est quelqu’un sur terre (There’s someone in my fancy) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 2 no.6 (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 5′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
Il est quelqu’un sur terre (Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

This is the longest of Britten’s French folksong settings – indeed, one of his longest songs, the sixth of eight given as a present to Sophie Wyss and published in 1946.

Although arranged for high voice and piano, the surviving record of Peter Pears singing this song takes the harp of Osian Ellis over the piano. Britten orchestrated five of his French settings but not this one.

In his notes for the 2008 Signum Classics release Britten Abroad, Dr John Evans highlights how ‘Britten’s extraordinary skill and fluency for setting his own native language has sometimes obscured the brilliance with which he embraced a wide range of foreign poetry throughout his career’. He goes on to describe Britten’s French settings as sounding ‘authentically Gallic’, and along with other Britten commentators draws parallels with Mahler, in particular the songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Thoughts

This may be one of Britten’s ‘spinning’ songs – the singer is a weaver – but it has a distinctly downtrodden feel to it

Set relentlessly in the minor key, it outlines feelings of sorrow and loss over a falling bass line that becomes something of an obsession, almost in the way that the bass line of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good (written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse) was to do in 1964.

It is a moment in Britten’s output where the dynamic barely rises, the singer hardly raising their head, and though it is a rather sombre song it is a very effective word setting.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (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)
Susan Gritton (soprano), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
Felicity Palmer (soprano), Endymion Ensemble / John Whitfield (EMI)

Susan Gritton and Iain Burnside perform this song in G minor, a whole minor third lower than Britten’s chosen key of B flat minor, which changes the colours completely. Far better to stay in B flat minor, as the ever-excellent Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson do. They, along with Peter Pears and Osian Ellis, would be the natural choices for thoughtful and sombre performances.

Spotify

Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson can be heard by clicking here, while Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg are here

Also written in 1942: Frank Sinatra – Night and Day

Next up: Eho! Eho!

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This entry was posted in Folksong arrangements, French, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – Il est quelqu’un sur terre

  1. Susanna Müller says:

    I wonder how many people know that this is actually a Swiss folk song, and not French. It is in fact the Altes Guggisbergerlied, the oldest known Swiss folk song, first mentioned in 1741. The original text is in Swiss German, in a Bernese dialect. The wonder of it is that you can still sing the original text perfectly well to Britten’s arrangement, although the French translation is not that close. But the sombre mood is the same, with a little bit of hopefule remembrance in some of the verses, and the tragic end. It is not a spinning song, though.

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