The Little Sweep the opera from Let’s make an opera, an entertainment for young people, Op.45 (April – May 1949, Britten aged 34)
Dedication Affectionately dedicated to the real Gay, Juliet, Sophie, Tina, Hughie, Jonny and Sammy – the Gathorne-Hardys of Great Glemham, Suffolk
Text Eric Crozier
Clips from the first recording of The Little Sweep, with Peter Pears and David Hemmings, and the English Opera Group Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. With thanks to Decca.
1. Sweep! Sweep!
2. Sweep this chimney
3.Now, little white boy!
4. Pull the rope gently until he is free!
5. Is he wounded?
6. Sooty tracks
7. Run, poor sweep-boy
8. The kettles are singing
9. O why do you weep
11. Help! Help! She’s collapsed!
12. The owl, wide-winging through the sky
13. Soon the coach will carry you away
14. Morning, Sammy! Lovely weather
15. Ready, Alfred?
16. Coaching song: The horses are champing
Background and Critical Reception
Neil Powell’s biography of Britten perceptively looks at the background behind this, the composer’s first opera for children. He speaks of how Britten’s ‘implicit hope that a return to the east coast might enable him to recapture some of his childhood joys and innocence hadn’t been fully realised.
So he turned to the next best thing: writing a work for actual children which would be both socially useful and emotionally therapeutic. This was Let’s make an Opera!, a sort of do-it-yourself kit for the English Opera Group to stage at the 1949 Aldeburgh Festival: it would comprise a short, musically illustrated play about the writing and rehearsal of the piece, followed by a performance of a one-act opera, The Little Sweep.’
The libretto for this came, once again, from Eric Crozier, who wrote the substantial act that shows the children planning and rehearsing for the first performance. As Britten said, ‘The cast consists of five professional singers and six children, and the audience constitutes the chorus (a neat device for saving money, don’t you think?) I have left myself ten days for composing this, but I do not anticipate any difficulties arising’.
Such was Britten’s confidence in his powers of invention – and why not, given the prodigious rate of composition on The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and The Beggar’s Opera? The work was finished in three weeks – and as Powell once again says, he enjoyed the freedom from the ’emotional baggage’ that went with writing for Peter Pears.
Imogen Holst wrote a chapter on the opera itself for The Britten Symposium in 1952, updated as part of The Britten Companion. In it she says that ‘By the time the curtain goes up there is no longer any dividing line between audience and performer or between amateur and professional, so there need be no fear of any self-consciousness, either on or off the stage. And as the story begins to unfold, one realizes that there is no dividing line in Britten, whether he writes a tragic opera for grown-ups or a light-hearted entertainment for children.’
As for the music itself, she praises Britten’s powers of musical description. ‘Five bars are enough to convey the desolation of the sweep as Sammy (the sweep) is left alone in the narrow chimney, with his rope dangling in the fireplace of the empty nursery.’
And so progresses the story, whereby the new sweep Sammy is forced into a chimney by the head sweeps of Iken Hall, the whiter than white boy made completely black in the process. He is however rescued by other children, who hear his pleas not to be sent up the chimney again. They plan to smuggle him out of the house in a suitcase, but face a number of obstacles, not least the housekeeper Miss Baggot, before they can get him clear. Eventually they are successful, and Sammy is free. For Humphrey Carpenter, this ‘puts the theme of lost innocence into reverse’, and even Hans Keller first referred to it as ‘a children’s Grimes’.
The audience songs were an innovation of the time. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, Stephen Arthur Allen notes how ‘Each of the four ‘audience songs’ – equivalents to the interludes of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia are themselves subtle parables (inspired perhaps by the success of the hymns in Saint Nicolas), permitting the audience to participate in or comment on the drama. He goes on to describe it as ‘a kind of Young Person’s Guide to the Opera. Michael Kennedy says that ‘In this work is crystallized all that we understand by Britten’s capacity for writing for children without patronizing them.’
Britten loved audience participation, because for him the function of his music was to involve the community – and Let’s make an Opera was the best possible vehicle to do that, giving something back to the Suffolk that had made him feel so welcome on his return from America.
Perhaps even more so than The Beggar’s Opera, the work is completely ‘of its time’, so it foes feel rather out of place 65 or so years on. The language of Crozier’s libretto has dated very well, but there is the matter of some non-too subtle racial references (‘don’t send the white boy up the chimney’) that were more common in the late 1940s but which would be frowned upon today. The musical language – it is for kids, after all! – is incredibly twee at times, more so in the play that surrounds the opera. But, as Michael Kennedy says, there is nothing patronizing at all, and if anything it is the adults who are seen as an inconvenience.
Once The Little Sweep itself begins, the music moves up a gear, and the opening chorus of ‘Swe-eee-eeep!’ is brilliantly done. Britten is one of very few composers who could achieve such a catchy melody in a time signature of 5/4; he did it time and time again throughout his career. It is clear he is having a lot of fun in the music, no more so than when the children are rushing to hide from the housekeeping staff, an extravagant ‘moto perpetuo’. There are enough musical jokes to keep the audience amused as well as the children, and in any case they have to busy themselves with the four choruses.
These are really well written, the second (Sammy’s Bath Song) an ‘ingratiating waltz’’, to borrow Michael Oliver’s term, and the third an enjoyable and slightly mad bit of night music where all the birds – owls, herons, doves and chaffinches – are evoked.
There are also some surprisingly moving passages. As Sammy implores ‘please don’t send me up again!’ there is a genuine feeling of panic, while the final chorus really does feel like a release from captivity, the music now in D major rather than the minor key in which it began.
I found the play itself much too long and overfull of ‘humourous’ accidents and pranks, very much in the vein of a younger Last of the Summer Wine. But again, it is of its time – and has a certain charm. It means that when the opera itself arrives the attention is more easily captured.
The opera is something of an acquired taste, and is not something I would necessarily choose to watch, the result being that I found I respected it rather than loved it. I wonder what a ten-year old would think now?
Let’s make an opera: An Opera Feature Film by Petr Weigl (1996)
Felicity Palmer, Kate Flowers, Stephen Richardson, John Graham Hall, Lisa Milne, Nettle & Markham (pianos), The Coull Quartet, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Symphony Youth Chorus / Simon Halsey (Arthaus)
April Cantelo, Jennifer Vyvyan, David Hemmings, Nancy Thomas, Peter Pears, Choir Of Alleyn’s School, English Opera Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Catherine Benson, Mary Wells, Sam Monck, Heather Begg, Robert Tear, Robert Lloyd, Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Finchley Children’s Music Group / Sir Philip Ledger (EMI)
Britten’s 1956 recording for Decca is very close-up, but the effects of the sweep boy being stuck in the chimney are brilliantly secured. In a sense that is effective, because chimneys are confined spaces after all! The pronunciations are very proper – so you can hear the words perfectly well but it sounds very posh. It is great to hear Britten’s dramatic acumen put to such vivid use, though, and you can see how well this would work for kids and adults alike.
Philip Ledger’s recording is also excellent, and has the benefit of better sound. The singing is particularly good, and there is a vibrancy and enthusiasm for the plot that runs through the recording. The last few numbers, and the final chorus, are particularly frothy.
Petr Weigl’s film is enjoyable, but probably best for those with younger minds than mine! I found the endless accidents of the first ten minutes rather wearing, and the separation of audio and video tracks was a problem too. Once the performance starts it is much more watchable.
Britten’s version is temporarily unavailable on Spotify it seems; however the Philip Langridge version can be accessed here.
Also written in 1949: Vaughan Williams – The Pilgrim’s Progress
Next up: Spring Symphony, Op.44