Listening to Britten – This way to the Tomb: Boogie-Woogie

Somerset Place, Bath 1942 by John Piper 1903-1992
Somerset Place, Bath, 1942 by John Piper. (c) The Piper Estate

This way to the Tomb – Incidental music for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, chorus (SATB), percussion and piano (4 hands) (1944 – October 1945, Britten aged 31)

Excerpt – Boogie-Woogie (arr. by Daryl Runswick)

Text for vocal numbers Ronald Duncan
Duration 3′

Background and Critical Reception

The Boogie-Woogie is approximately one-tenth of Britten’s score for This Way to the Tomb, Ronald Duncan’s radio play. Having mastered unaccompanied polyphony with Deus in adjutorium meum, the motet with which the masque begins and ends, the composer was breaking ranks with this, an exuberant piece arranged for ensemble, complete with drum kit, by Daryl Runswick.

Very little is written about Britten’s music for This way to the tomb, though John Bridcut does give it a passing mention. Perhaps of greater significance is that this incidental music was written with Duncan, who was to remain a collaborator for Britten’s next opera, The Rape of Lucretia.

Thoughts

If you were to blindfold your listener and give them no information on this music, the chances are very few of them would identify the composer as Britten. This is the composer of the Cabaret Songs reaching even further into his popular music canon, and he pulls out a piece of music that had me wondering if Britten could somehow have given The Beatles a run for their money in the pop music side of things, had he developed himself further on this front.

A debate for another time, perhaps, but the Boogie-Woogie here is brilliantly done, in a feisty arrangement from Daryl Runswick that realises the spirit of Kurt Weill and 1930s Berlin. The film scores certainly come to mind, particularly On the frontier, and there is plenty of humour here. It must have been a fun diversion for Britten to be writing music like this, sharply dressed and wittily executed.

The only downside is the music doesn’t last longer!

Recordings used

John Constable (piano), Beverley Davison (violin), Graham Ashton (trumpet), Chris Laurence (double bass), David Roach (saxophone), Gregory Knowles (percussion) (Unicorn-Kanchana)

A stylishly played arrangement, with Chris Laurence and John Constable’s athletic bass line a particular source of enjoyment.

Spotify

Not available, but a very brief clip can be heard on the Artist Direct website.

Also written in 1945: Walter Piston – Sonatina for violin and harpsichord

Next up: Evening, Morning and Night

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