Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op.49 for solo oboe (pre 14 June 1951, Britten aged 37)
Dedication Joy Boughton
A clip from each of the six pieces, performed by oboist Sarah Francis. With thanks to Hyperion.
Background and Critical Reception
It is no exaggeration to say that Britten was writing ‘outdoor music’ as the 1940s turned into the 1950s. With the Flower Songs having received their first performance ‘al fresco’, it was time for some instrumental music to experience the same phenomenon, and this collection of six pieces for solo oboe were first performed by Joy Boughton (daughter of the composer Rutland Boughton) at the Meare, Thorpeness, as part of the 1951 Aldeburgh Festival.
Works for solo oboe are still relatively rare today, but these pieces helped transform the repertoire and perception of the instrument. Although Britten had already written some accomplished pieces for oboe and other forces (the Phantasy Quartet Op.2, the Two Insect Pieces and the Temporal Variations) these pieces confirmed his absolute understanding of the instrument.
Eric Roseberry, writing booklet notes for Hyperion’s disc of Britten oboe and piano works, describes the Metamorphoses. ‘Like pieces of statuary in some classically conceived garden, these perfect miniatures capture the spirit of Ancient Greece with playfulness, humour, compassion and tenderness. The sly languor of Pan, the ill-advised daring of Phaeton, the sad immobility of Niobe, the tipsy revelries of Bacchus and his troop of boys, Narcissus contemplating his own image, the tumbling fountain of Arethusa – all are caught in a perfectly conceived outdoor music that must have yielded pure enchantment at its first performance over the waters on that June afternoon’.
The Six Metamorphoses after Ovid are extremely good pieces to experience live in concert, and I have had the pleasure of two performances previously, from Nicholas Daniel and from François Leleux.
Both emphasised the wide-open sounds of the piece, with Britten enjoying writing lyrically, mischievously or slightly sadly. For these pieces are very distinct in mood, responding as they are to the different mythological figures.
The cascading figuration of Arethusa‘s fountain is lovely, as is the darting figuration of Phaeton as he streaks across the sky, the finish an effective throwaway as he disappears. The contemplation of Narcissus is thoughtful, but I was sure towards the end of Arethusa that I could detect a parallel with the Sixth Cello Suite of Bach – probably not intentional but the two pieces share a key and the brilliance of the treble range.
Britten gives his music a great sense of freedom here, enjoying the wide range of colour and phrasing the oboe has to offer – indeed, Pan is close to a saxophone in its richness. I’d wager this will surprise a number of people who may have pigeonholed the instrument as a harbinger of sadness, as TV detective dramas love to paint it!
George Caird, Joy Boughton and Nicholas Daniel (Oboe Classics)
Janet Craxton (Decca)
Sarah Francis (Hyperion)
François Leleux (Harmonia Mundi)
Oboe students will certainly want the package on Oboe Classics. Masterminded by George Caird, it is an exceptional educational tool that comes complete with a comprehensive analysis by the author, who also performs early manuscript versions. In addition there are complete accounts of the six pieces by Joy Boughton, the dedicatee, and Nicholas Daniel, who will be talking in an interview with this blog about the works very soon.
I also focused on two other recordings, an early one from Janet Craxton and a digital version from Sarah Francis. The tone on Craxton’s analogue recording is extremely good, and her playing is sublime, in particular the gradual ‘accelerando’ that she employs at the end of the sixth piece. Francis has more depth to her sound and is a little more languid in the slow music, again securing a gorgeous tone.
This playlist includes a number of versions of the Metamorphoses, including the package available on Oboe Classics.
Also written in 1951: Elliott Carter – String Quartet no.1
Next up: I take no pleasure in the sun’s bright beams