Birthday Song for Erwin – for high voice and piano (October – November 1945, Britten aged 32)
Text Ronald Duncan
A clip of the recording of Birthday Song for Erwin, made by Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson. With thanks to Hyperion.
Background and Critical Reception
This song was written to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of Erwin Stein, an Austrian musician and pupil of Schoenberg who Britten met in 1934.
Philip Reed, in his notes for Ian Bostridge’s The Red Cockatoo and Other Songs, details how Britten was hoping to talk with Berg at the time, but met with Stein instead, who was working at the publishers Universal Edition. The two formed a lasting friendship, and this present, with words by Ronald Duncan (This Way to the Tomb and The Rape of Lucretia) was delivered in person at his birthday party by Pears and Britten themselves.
The song was given to Stein in 1945, and was found among his papers in 1986. Reed talks of its ‘affinity with Young Apollo, in the same sun-drenched tonality (A major), and also Death in Venice‘. John Bridcut notes its ‘evocation of a gong’.
As might be expected in ‘Purcell year’, the spirit of the composer is behind much of this song, with the florid delivery of the tenor giving it a bright sound to start with. The opening, with the words ‘See how the sun, Strikes the bronze gong of earth’ brings a cluster of notes from the piano in imitation. The vocal writing is bright – and could even be regarded as slightly pompous.
The mood then becomes more thoughtful, as Duncan’s words reflect that ‘on this day a man was born, Music his element, and friendship his echo’. As Philip Reed notes, Britten definitely imports the mood of Young Apollo here, together with its key. Erwin Stein must have been a sprightly sixty-year old!
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)
There are just two recordings of this relatively recently discovered piece, both of which are delivered with aplomb.
Despite the title of this link, A Birthday Song can be heard here in the version by Benjamin Hulett and Malcolm Martineau.
Also written in 1945: Novello – We’ll Gather Lilacs
Next up: Fairest isle