The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard for male voices and piano (13 December 1943, Britten aged 30)
Dedication Richard Wood and the musicians of Oflag VIIb – Germany 1943
Text Christopher Smart
Background and Critical Reception
The lengths to which people would go during the World Wars to ensure a semblance of creativity remained are clear in the genesis of this piece.
‘I am quickly scribbling a short choral work for a prison camp in Germany where some friends of mine are,’ Britten modestly told Elizabeth Mayer, in a conversation recounted by Humphrey Carpenter. The commission was from Richard Wood, who had organised a male voice choir in the Oflag VIIb camp, and Britten responded with this setting of an old tale of betrayal and adultery. In the tale, Lady Barnard has a secret assignment which is laid bare by Lord Barnard’s page – and as the result of this the Lady gets caught in the act and is murdered.
Britten somehow got the music through to Wood in the camp by sending it, page by page, on microfilm.
The Britten Thematic Catalogue entry for the work details how
the handling of the piano accompaniment should depend on the size of chorus and soloists available. In his online guide to Britten choral music, Paul Spicer describes the piece as ‘a wonderfully dramatic work which will be well within the capabilities of most reasonable choirs’.
Despite his obvious fondness of writing for the male voice, this is the first substantial piece of Britten to be scored for a male voice choir. It is one I found I respected rather than loved.
It is clearly a piece written with its performers in mind, for the harmonies are relatively straightforward, but it is a lusty piece of music to blow away the cobwebs. There are strong parallels to the grander folksong settings, such as The Bonny Earl O’Moray, especially as the music is largely fixed, as that song was, in E flat major.
The central section is music of the hunt, with a keen dramatic thrust, but when Lady Barnard is discovered in flagrante there is a sense of absolute cold hate at Lord Barnard’s discovery, followed swiftly by fury as the hunt music returns – before the music and mood of the grand opening returns.
As Paul Spicer says, provided the performance is a passionate one, the Ballad is a simple but powerful utterance.
The Elizabethan Singers, Wilfrid Parry (piano) / Louis Halsey (Decca)
The Sixteen, Stephen Westrop (piano) / Harry Christophers (Coro)
The Elizabethan Singers are a lot slower than The Sixteen, their account of The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard taking ten minutes exactly as opposed to Harry Christophers’ quicker tempo of 8’30”. The former recording has a bigger chorus and a grander sound, and it feels more spacious – but Christophers gets a strong sense of urgency in the central section and has the greater definition. Both are strong accounts.
The Elizabethan Singers can be found here, while the Sixteen and Harry Christophers are here. An alternative version by Martin Carthy of the text may be of interest. Sung unaccompanied, it can be heard here.
Also written in 1943: Orff – Catulli Carmina (revised version)
Next up: Pious Celinda goes to prayers