A Charm of Lullabies, Op.41 – for mezzo-soprano and piano (November – 17 December 1947, Britten aged 34)
1 A Cradle Song (William Blake)
2 The Highland Balou (Robert Burns)
3 Sephestia’s Lullaby (Robert Greene)
4 A Charm (Thomas Randolph)
5 The Nurse’s Song (John Philip)
Dedication Nancy Evans
Text Various, as above
Clips from A Charm of Lullabies can be heard here at the Allmusic website, using the recording made for Deutsche Grammophon by Magdalena Kožená and Malcolm Martineau.
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s collection of five lullabies were written for the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans, who played the title role in The Rape of Lucretia, the part of Nancy in Albert Herring and the character of Polly Peachum in Britten’s performing version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Evans was to give a recital as part of the Holland Festival at The Hague early in 1948, and Britten, with the help of Eric Crozier, chose five poems for her to sing there.
His choice of texts is typically diverse, described by John Bridcut as initially looking like a ‘milk-and-water confection’, but ultimately ‘a diversity of poems that challenges the very concept of ‘lullaby”. The cycle begins with William Blake’s Cradle Song, already set once by the composer in 1938.
He notes how, in the setting of Robert Burns’s The Highland Balou, ‘the dancing rhythms keep the infant eyes wide open, as do the bouncing piano figures in Sephestia’s Lullaby. The traditional soothing nature of the lullaby returns for The Nurse’s Song at the end, though shaded with melancholy in its dactylic rhythm’.
Colin Matthews completed an orchestration of the cycle in 1990, and in his notes for the recording made by Sarah Connolly on Chandos, John Evans writes how ‘the cycle does not perhaps plumb the depths of Britten’s finest work in this genre, but these songs are not without an occasional undercurrent of darkness and tension, as is true of all the music by Britten that delves into the complex world of sleep and dreams’.
Throughout his life Britten retained a fondness for composing on themes of sleep, and as John Evans notes above he wrote some of his strangest music on this subject, poised in the moment between wakefulness and slumber. A Charm of Lullabies is no exception.
His choices of text here are ever more diverse, but they form a strangely satisfying whole. There is also evidence of a more economical approach, for the five songs last little more than twelve minutes – the last of them taking up a third of the duration. This is the most immediately winsome song, a true lullaby that falls perfectly into the mezzo-soprano range, with a fullness of tone required that is more reminiscent of the Cabaret Songs. The unaccompanied refrain is gorgeous, and the listener can turn off the lights when it finishes.
The spirit of Purcell remains close at hand in the fresh setting of Blake’s Cradle Song, which channels the spirit of Purcell in its wandering piano part but fidgets rather restlessly, as if unable to find a comfortable position in the bed. The clipped figuration of the unsettling Sephestia’s Lullaby is close to Janáček in both spirit and harmonic language, while the admonishing of the children in A charm is funny at times but also rather disturbing.
Matthews’ orchestral version is slightly expanded to link the songs together but this is done, as with all his Britten arrangements, with the utmost sensitivity. It highlights in sharper focus the influence of Mahler on Britten’s night time writing.
Sleep should provide comfort, but does not always do so in Britten’s world – in some cases it brings you closer to your nightmares.
Pamela Bowden, Peter Gellhorn (piano) (Decca)
Magdalena Kožená, Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Jennifer Johnston, Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Orchestral version – Sarah Connolly, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Recordings of A Charm of Lullabies are relatively scarce, and the cycle is also unusual in not having a recording with its composer at the piano. The earliest recording comes from the mezzo-soprano Pamela Bowden, who is slightly tremulous but very expressive, with the twinkling and rippling piano of Peter Gellhorn in accompaniment.
Modern versions include an intimate version from Magdalena Kožená and Malcolm Martineau on DG. Martineau also partners Jennifer Johnston in a rather more reverberant recording for Onyx. You certainly won’t be able to sleep after Johnston’s admonishment in A Charm!
This playlist offers four versions of Britten’s cycle, the versions by Kožená and Johnston mentioned above joined by a recording made by Ann Murray, once again with Malcolm Martineau at the piano. Sarah Connolly’s recording of Colin Matthews’ orchestration is also included.
Also written in 1947: Prokofiev – Symphony no.6 in E flat minor, Op.111
Next up: Job’s curse