Listening to Britten – Quand j’étais chez mon père


River and Bridge in the South of France by Josephine Bowes. Used with many thanks to The Bowes Museum

Quand j’étais chez mon père (Heigh Ho! Heigh Hi!) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 2 no.8 (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)
Quand j’étais chez mon père (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

For Donald Mitchell, one of the most highly respected of all Britten commentators, this is one of the folksong settings that illustrates vividly how Britten kept his own compositional style to the fore when arranging traditional material.

In his booklet notes to the Collins Classics release of the complete folksong settings, Mitchell talks about how Quand j’étais chez mon père is a forerunner of Peter Grimes, specifically the man-hunt chorus of Act 3.

It is the ‘idea of cranking up the tension by means of an ascending dissonant scale. It starts first (horns and voices) as an arpeggio and then climaxes in an upwards chromatic grind – ripping through the texture; and yes, the man-hunt is basically a savage dance, and yes, when we first hear it in the opera, it is as a slow waltz, accompanying Mrs. Sedley’s accusation of murder and marked ‘alla Ländler’ by the composer, the identical marking he had already used for the folksong.

His conclusion is emphatic. ‘Could there be a more clinching demonstration that when Britten sat down to ‘arrange’, what took over were his habitual compositional techniques, his innate sense of drama not excluded?

Thoughts

Britten finishes his French folksong group with a flourish. This is a march that gets progressively more animated as it goes on, and in the right performance or recording it finishes with a high note that has the listener instinctively backing away for cover! The orchestral version is powerful too, though sounds a bit more sombre in its lower key.

Again the song is suitable for male or female voice, though my preference would be for the former, particularly in a version such as that by Philip Langridge, who show how the song gathers in power. The comparison to Peter Grimes that Donald Mitchell makes is a fascinating one, proof that Britten approached these settings as he would a new song, looking to make them his own as much as possible. The dissonant accompaniment here, and Britten’s treatment of it, ensure that he succeeds.

Recordings used

Sophie Wyss (soprano), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Philip Langridge (tenor), 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)
Thomas Allen (baritone), Northern Sinfonia / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)

There are some fraught performances here, none more so than Philip Langridge who gives a very powerful performance with Graham Johnson. Both Felicity Palmer or Thomas Allen amply demonstrate how well the song transfers to singer and orchestra. Sophie Wyss, the dedicatee, has an endearingly bright voice which Britten’s piano part complements, sparkling as the music grows in intensity.

Spotify

Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson are here, while Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg are here. Thomas Allen, with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Steaurt Bedford, is here. There is a recording here that purports to be by Pears and Britten, though its authenticity is uncertain. That can be found here

Also written in 1942: Benny Goodman – Someone else is taking my place

Next up: Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op.31

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