Listening to Britten – Spring Symphony, Op.44


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Spring Symphony, Op.44 for soprano, contralto and tenor soloists, chorus, boys’ choir and orchestra (October 1948 – June 1949, Britten aged 35)

Part 1

Introduction (Anon, 16th century)
The merry cuckoo (Edmund Spenser)
Spring (Thomas Nashe)
The driving boy (George Peel / John Clare)
The morning star (John Milton)

Part 2

Welcome, maids of honour (Robert Herrick)
Waters above (Henry Vaughan)
Out on the lawn (W.H. Auden)

Part 3

When will my May come (Richard Barnfield)
Fair and fair (George Peele)
Sound the flute (William Blake)

Part 4

Finale: London, to thee I do present ((Francis Beaumont / John Fletcher)

Dedication Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Text as above
Language English
Duration 45′

Audio clips

Taken from the premiere recording, with Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Norma Proctor (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), Emanuel School Wandsworth Boys’ Choir and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Benjamin Britten. With thanks to Decca

Part 1
1. Introduction

2. The merry cuckoo

3. Spring

4. The driving boy

5. The morning star

Part 2

6. Welcome, maids of honour (Robert Herrick)

7. Waters above

8. Out on the lawn

Part 3

9. When will my May come

10. Fair and fair

11. Sound the flute

Part 4

12. Finale: London, to thee I do present

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s endless outpouring of vocal music seemed like it was never going to stop in the late 1940s, and even when he was writing a symphony the voice was still its dominant feature.

There is a lot of scholarly debate as to whether this really is a proper symphony, but as Michael Kennedy points out in his booklet note for Britten’s own recording on Decca, it follows in the tradition of choral symphonies from Vaughan Williams and Holst, while taking more influence from the Mahler symphonies in which voices were used.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and began with a rather different concept. When Britten wrote to the conductor, he said, ‘I am planning it for chorus and soloists, as I think you wanted; but it is a real symphony (the emphasis is on the orchestra) and consequently I am using Latin words’.

Things changed, as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer details. ‘Both Eric Crozier and Elizabeth Sweeting believe that the Spring Symphony owes its existence to a particular Suffolk landscape, ‘somewhere between Snape and Ufford’, writes Crozier. According to Sweeting, Britten visited this spot on a picnic with her, his housekeeper and Pears. It was ‘a glorious spring day, one of those that seem to be out of time; and she believes that this experience crystallized his love of the Suffolk countryside.’

The work actually enjoyed its first performance in the Netherlands, where, with Koussevitsky’s blessing, Eduard van Beinum conducted the first performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 14 July 1949. A little Latin remained, Britten including the ancient song Sumer is icumen in in the work’s climactic final pages.

Britten says this is ‘a symphony not only dealing with the Spring itself, but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the reawakening of the earth and life which that means’. Carpenter maintains that ‘sweetness is the work’s predominant character – most of the poems are in the pastoral tradition – and it is much to Britten’s credit that the music never becomes cloying. This is largely due to the orchestration. Coming to it from the exigencies of the English Opera Group chamber ensemble, Britten treats the full-size symphony orchestra of the Spring Symphony (triple woodwind, four percussionists and two harps) as a palette from which he selects only a few colours at a time, with stunning results.’

He concludes by saying, ‘The Spring Symphony is a Serenade without the Invisible Worm.’

Thoughts

The Spring Symphony invites its listener to throw open the windows and take in the fresh air. This is very much a celebratory work, moving from cold to warm and from darkness to light – from barren to fertile, if you like.

Britten uses his performing means with great economy, although sometimes it does feel like there are just too many toys for him to play with. Three vocal soloists, two choirs and a large orchestra is a lot to be dealing with, and it must be a bit odd in performance to see just the tenor soloist and three trumpets engaged in a three minute fanfare in front of the massed throng. Yet perhaps this is where the influence of Mahler is at its height, the ability to make what is effectively chamber music in the middle of a huge assembled throng of performers.

I found this symphony a lot of fun after a few listens, and a lot happens in its course. Somehow we negotiate twelve song settings in 45 minutes, covering approximately 700 years of English poetry by fourteen different authors, but the composer manages to pull some sense from this potentially scattergun approach.

The most affecting of the settings, and the work’s emotional centre, is the Auden setting, Out on the lawn I lie in bed, placed at the end of Part 2, which is in effect the slow movement. This alternates between the contralto soloist and the distant choir, rising to a poignant climax that briefly questions the war, before Britten returns to the theme of spring and new life.

There are some invigorating choruses here, too. The ostinato Spring, the sweet Spring sticks in the head a lot, while the final pages are a heady rush of sunshine. Meanwhile the juxtaposition of tenor and trumpets in The Merry Cuckoo is very striking. Perhaps the most vivid pictures of nature come with the introduction, a thawing of winter set to the anonymous poem Shine Out. The woodwind at about three minutes in, although they are meant to evoke a colder season, sound to me like the green shoots and buds made visible at last.

So much happens here that the Spring Symphony needs a good number of listens before all of its bounty can fully be harvested. It is Britten casting aside his inhibitions and celebrating, with a whole community, his land going through the process of becoming green and pleasant again.

Recordings used

Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Norma Proctor (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), Emanuel School Wandsworth Boys’ Choir and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Sheila Armstrong (Soprano), Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Robert Tear (tenor), St. Clement Danes Grammar School Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn (EMI)

Elizabeth Gale (soprano), Alfredo Hodgson (contralto), Martyn Hill (tenor), City of London School Boys and Girls Choirs, Southend Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Nina Postavnicheva, Vladimir Mahov, Alexander Yakovenko, Grand Symphony Orchestra of Radio and Television & Chorus of Boys / Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Russian Revelation)

Naděžda Kniplová (soprano), Věra Soukupová (alto), Beno Blachut (tenor), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Kühn Children’s Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Karel Ančerl (Supraphon)

Perhaps because of the forces required to perform it, the Spring Symphony is not a piece with a rich recorded history, but there are certainly some quirks among its discography. It is no surprise that this is led by the composer’s recording, full of the joys of spring, so to speak! Pears sings superbly in The Merry Cuckoo, in a memorable duet with the trumpets, while Norma Proctor brings deep emotion to Auden’s poem.

André Previn’s recording is deeply committed and boasts superb soloists in Sheila Armstrong, Dame Janet Baker and Robert Tear. His celesta is surprisingly loud and shimmers as an echo in the early climaxes, but the bluster of the cow horn in the finale and some heavy percussive blows mean the recording is great fun.

Some very lusty singing characterises Richard Hickox’s recording, with Martyn Hill a brightly voiced tenor soloist in The Merry Cuckoo. The choral singing is extremely impressive throughout.

The Spring Symphony is one of Britten’s best travelled works, and there are recordings both in Czech and in Russian. The former, in a performance conducted by Karel Ancerl and recently made available on Supraphon, is quite fierce at times, while the latter gets a raucous but vivid performance from Gennadi R and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, on the short-lived Russian Revelation label. His percussion is very forwards in the mix.

Spotify

This playlist brings together recorded versions of the Spring Symphony from Britten himself, Previn, Hickox and Gardiner.

Also written in 1949: Jolivet – Flute Concerto

Next up: A Wedding Anthem, Op.46 (Amo Ergo Sum)

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Spring Symphony, Op.44

  1. Just wanted to mention again that a recording of the premier performance on July 14, 1949 is part of the Kathleen Ferrier box set (CD 11 out of 14) released on Decca in 2012. It is a recording from Radio Hilversum made for Lord Harewood and dubbed from 7 cellulose nitrate discs (the line notes say). So the sound quality is an issue, nevertheless another little gem.

  2. alastairbc says:

    A very recent performance of the Spring Symphony by the Cheltenham Symphony Orchesta at Tewkesbury Abbey, Glos, on Saturday 19th October under the direction of David Curtis with Rachel Chapman (soprano), Diana Moore (mezzo) and Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor) with the City of Bristol Choir etc was qute superb and has been recorded (to be issued shortly). Well worth hearing. http://www.cheltenhamsymphonyorchestra.com for review of concert and details of where to buy the CDs, once available.

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