Listening to Britten – The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35


War Weapons Week in a country town by Michael Ford (1941). Used courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35 – for high voice and piano (2 August 1935 – 19 August 1945, Britten aged 31)

1 Oh my black Soule!
2 Batter my heart
3 Oh might those sighes and teares
4 Oh, to vex me
5 What if this present
6 Since she whom I loved
7 At the round earth’s imagined corners
8 Thou hast made me
9 Death be not proud

Dedication Peter Pears
Text John Donne
Language English
Duration 24′

Audio clips using the Hyperion recording made by Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson in 1995. With thanks to Hyperion

1. Oh my black Soule!

2. Batter my heart

3. Oh might those sighes and teares

4. Oh, to vex me

5. What if this present

6. Since she whom I loved

7. At the round earth’s imagined corners

8. Thou hast made me

9. Death be not proud

Background and Critical Reception

Britten had reached new heights publicity with Peter Grimes, but he was still working as a performer too. In 1945 he met the young violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who was due to visit the German war camp of Belsen with the pianist Gerald Moore. When Britten got wind of this he pleaded to go, and with Moore graciously stepping aside he got his wish.

What followed stayed with him for the rest of his life. As Tony Palmer detailed in an interview on this blog, “When I began to think what I wanted to say it in Nocturne it was absolutely there, and I’d missed the significance of it. Peter reminded me that within a couple of weeks of the Peter Grimes premiere, in 1945, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin had gone to Belsen concentration camp to perform. Menuhin was ambivalent about it, but can you imagine the shocking effect it had on them? When Britten came back Peter Pears said he went to bed for a week, and also said that none of his music after that was the same”.

The first performance of the Holy Sonnets, nine of Donne’s nineteen published works in the form, was at the Wigmore Hall on Britten’s thirty-second birthday, the day after the String Quartet no.2 was premiered.

Graham Johnson, writing in The Britten Companion, recounts how Pears says the cycle ‘defies the nightmare horror with a strong love, the instinctive answer to Buchenwald from East Anglia’. On Batter my hear, the second song, he declares that ‘fiendish as the accompaniment is, it is, as always with Britten, superbly pianistic. The core of the cycle is the sixth sonnet, ‘Since she whom I loved’, a profoundly moving prayer written with Schubertian simplicity and a Schubertian ability to modulate at exactly the right moment. This is love music which is not of this world, and there is nothing else like it in English song’.

Michael Oliver describes the Sonnets as ‘feverish, obsessive, almost unremittingly tense, with only one island (Since she whom I lov’d) of uninterrupted lyricism in the sequence. Michael Kennedy realises ‘it has remained one of his least performed works, partly because it makes intense demands on stamina from the singer and partly, perhaps, because audiences find its high-pitched emotional intensity, allied to a particularly intricate thematic scheme, exhausting in comparison to the more lyrical Michelangelo and Hardy cycles’. Paul Kildea declares that ‘Belsen unlocked Britten’s righteous fury’; Arnold Whittall that the cycle is ‘strangely triumphant at the end’.

Thoughts

With The Holy Sonnets of John Donne Britten is making a big demand on his listener, but there is a strong sense of the listener actually being forgotten in this work. This is something Britten had to write, borne firstly out of his anti-war feelings, then out of the awful reality of Belsen, then finally from the high fever from which he was suffering when he wrote most of them.

Of all his song collections these are the most direct, the hardest to swallow, the ones you need to be in the right mood for. And yet, once the effort is made, the rewards are great. Britten makes no concession with the bleak texts, the unforgiving settings, the harsh sonorities, but they possess great power. Batter my heart, the famous Donne text and the second sonnet here, springs forth as if fired from a gun, the piano and singer racing side by side as if in a deadly car chase. At the end of Thou hast made me the bleakness reaches new depths, Britten ramming the piano line into a brick wall with a succession of powerful E flat minor chords.

The bad tempered What if this present is gruff and very snippy, while Oh might those sighes and teares, meanwhile, is numb, its piano bearing more than a passing resemblance to the celesta in Peter Grimes that sounds for the death of the fisherman’s second apprentice.

Thankfully Since she whom I loved offers a little respite, but only a little, as that too quickly reaches high levels of emotional intensity, especially when Pears is singing.

Britten immediately throws his listener back in the fire. At the round earth’s imagined corners has an extraordinary sound, with a liquid piano that is the very definition of wandering thoughts. As John Bridcut says, it is incredibly Purcellian, and harks back to Let the florid music praise! from On This Island. The whole set is restless and deeply unsettled.

And yet there is hope, as Death be not proud exults through gritted teeth that ‘death, though shalt die’. In an attempt to reach a more ecstatic musical ending Britten moves to B major – a rich key indeed – and but for the bleak earlier poems he might have pulled it off. But it is a hollow ending, the scars of the earlier songs remaining foremost in the mind.
This, then, is Britten at his least compromising, revealing the blackness of his thoughts in the wake of war and illness. It is not a nice place to be – but our understanding of him is enriched, our admiration too.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (EMI, recorded 1947)
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca, recorded 1967)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tillbrook (piano) (Linn)
Ben Johnson (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

A starry line-up of recordings that reads almost like a roll call of the best Britten tenors. Versions old and new are here, from the two recordings Pears and Britten made together through to the most recent, a fine and passionate account for Onyx from Ben Johnson and Malcolm Martineau.

Pears and Britten are of course the reference points, and their first recording for EMI crackles with electricity. The second, for Decca, is almost as keenly felt.

However I found my personal preferences in this work to lie between the more modern recordings made by Langridge and Bedford, Bostridge and Johnson and Padmore and Vignoles, with the latter just shading it for me. It is a purely personal reaction to vibrato, and just occasionally Pears is too rich in that regard. Langridge is also pretty wide in the last song, though there are some astonishing moments in his interpretation. Reasons for picking Padmore also include pianist Roger Vignoles, who plays with flair and precision throughout, never losing sight of the vocal line. I should stress this is a purely personal choice though, as all of these recordings are of an incredibly high standard, the standard that such a piece demands.

Spotify

The attached playlist includes a number of versions, with both the Pears-Britten recordings and those by Langridge and Bedford, Padmore and Vignoles and Johnson and Martineau.

Also written in 1945: Tippett – Symphony no.1

Next up: The plough boy

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This entry was posted in Italian, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Listening to Britten – The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – String Quartet no.2 in C major, Op.36 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Who are these children?, Op.84 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Britten on Record: Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D934 | Good Morning Britten

  4. Pingback: Britten on Record: Debussy: Sonata for piano and violin in G minor | Good Morning Britten

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