Winter Words, Op.52 – Lyrics and ballads of Thomas Hardy, for high voice and piano (March – September 1953, Britten aged 39)
1 At day-close in November
2 Midnight on the Great Western
3 Wagtail and baby
4 The little old table
5 The choirmaster’s burial
6 Proud songsters
7 At the railway station, Upway
8 Before life and after
Dedication John and Myfanwy Piper
Text Thomas Hardy
Clips from the composer’s recording with Peter Pears can be heard below. With thanks to Decca.
1. At day-close in November
2. Midnight on the Great Western
3. Wagtail and baby
4. The little old table
5. The choirmaster’s burial
6. Proud Songsters
7. At the railway station, Upway
Background and Critical Reception
Winter Words, despite having an opus number of 52, was written after Gloriana, whose opus number of 53 Britten felt too good to be true with the Coronation in mind. Yet because of the negative reaction from the establishment to the opera, Britten found himself in a fragile state of body and mind whilst putting together his Thomas Hardy cycle.
There were tensions within the English Opera Group, too, their next production (The Turn of the Screw) delayed because of their composer’s work for the Queen. Perhaps because of these elements, and the nature of The Turn of the Screw‘s subject material, Britten’s writing methods became more economical, with Winter Words an early example of a compressed and relatively austere style.
Graham Johnson, writing about the work in The Britten Companion, finds much that is worthy of praise. ‘The songs have about them a sanity and stability which is one of the hallmarks of English song, a certain equanimity which is lacking in the ardent wooings of Michelangelo and the fevered visions of Donne.’
He also highlights the links Winter Words enjoys with Schubert’s great song cycle Winterreise, in particular The little old table, described as ‘an English equivalent to Der Lindenbaum‘. For Johnson, ‘the sound of something familiar transports poet and composer into the past’. Additionally, in Proud Songsters ‘we see how Britten, like Schubert, has realised the value of placing a fast song between blocks of slow ones’.
And yet, he continues, ‘the songs which have something of a Winterreise flavour are not the major part of Winter Words‘, which is fundamentally ‘not tragic’, with ‘stories full of bitter-sweet humour and wry social comment’.
Winter Words is dedicated to John and Myfanwy Piper, with whom Britten was working on The Turn of the Screw at the time; John designing the set and Myfanwy elevated from a consultant on text to writing the libretto herself. That John should choose Wagtail and baby for Desert Island Discs in 1983 says everything about the regard in which he held Britten’s latest – and arguably best – song cycle.
Winter Words is one of Britten’s most treasured collection of songs, and it is easy to see why. There are many different emotions to be felt in the course of the eight songs, and never a dull moment, yet perhaps the crowning element of Britten’s work is the incredibly sharp descriptive powers the composer brings to each miniature story. This is the song cycle where the piano really comes in to its own as an instrument to paint a picture, doing so for trains, birds, violins, vicars and constables among many other things!
Wagtail and baby is perhaps the most exquisite example, the bird bravely darting among the feet of a bull, a stallion or a mongrel with barely a blink of an eye, before scuttling away as a gentleman appears. Britten’s description of its uncertain and flighty motion is brilliantly conveyed. In The Choirmaster’s Burial, the wonderfully pompous vicar gets as his epitaph a favourite hymn tune, Mount Ephraim, in the piano left hand. Then, in At The Railway Station, Upway, Britten imitates the little boy with the violin in a number of guises, painting the picture of Hardy’s words with such detail that the listener feels they are there.
The cycle begins with the bluster of At day-close in November, which transports us immediately to the winter season, the cold wind blowing around the fringes of our coats, but in a complete contrast the second song Midnight on the Great Western finds an almost total stillness to begin with, the dead of night evoked in a manner that recalls Mahler’s own setting of Um Mitternacht, from the Rückert-Lieder. Indeed the songs of Schubert and Mahler are loosely influential for Winter Words, as Graham Johnson discusses above, but as he also points out this is a quintessentially English song cycle.
As if that wasn’t enough, the final song, Before Life and After, is the most directly emotional, tugging on the heartstrings as it pleads passionately for deliverance, with real anguish in its final question of ‘how long’? It ends the cycle on a troubled note, but elsewhere there is much to warm the cockles of the heart in the cold season.
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Philip Ledger (piano) (EMI)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Antonio Pappano (piano) (EMI)
Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Even for Britten’s rich discography, Winter Words has such an illustrious recorded legacy that most of the versions could make the Penguin Guide of recommendations without a second thought.
It says much that even someone as accomplished as Ian Bostridge would not be on my own personal shortlist. His is the newest recording, and contains many good things, but there is a slight tendency for his voice to dry out in the upper registers, which it does in the final song.
Robert Tear and Sir Philip Ledger, often overlooked as Britten interpreters, deliver a very strong performance, as does one of the new guard, Robin Tritschler, with typically descriptive accompaniment from Malcolm Martineau. In a cycle where the pianist is every bit as important as the singer the best modern versions for me are Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson, part of their indispensable disc of Britten for Hyperion, Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford, who are especially good in Wagtail and baby and At the Railway Station, Upway, and Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles, who characterise each song as if it were a cycle in itself. Vignoles shapes his piano part beautifully.
All those versions listed above are excellent – but then of course we have Peter Pears and Britten himself, who bring to this cycle still further insights and even greater emotion.
This playlist offers several versions of Britten’s perennial – from Pears and Britten themselves, then Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford, Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles, Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano and finally Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau.
Also written in 1953: Honegger – A Christmas Cantata
Next up: Symphonic Suite, ‘Gloriana’, Op.53a