Listening to Britten – The shooting of his dear


Four Hounds with Gentlemen Shooting by Peter Tillemans. Photo (c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)

The shooting of his dear – folksong arrangement (Norfolk) for high voice and guitar (21 March 1956, Britten aged 42)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clip (with thanks to Hyperion)
The shooting of his dear (Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Craig Ogden (guitar))

Background and Critical Reception

This is the first of many published encounters between Britten and the guitar. This was almost entirely due to Julian Bream, who had become a regular recital partner for Peter Pears in Elizabethan song, particularly Dowland. Britten was drawn to the instrument and saw the opportunity to arrange folksongs for Pears and Bream to perform – and eventually set aside an entire volume (no.6) of arrangements, to go with the Songs from the Chinese which he wrote in 1957.

Lewis Foreman, in his notes for the Hyperion recording of the complete folksong arrangements, describes how The shooting of his dear was of great significance to Moeran, who played a big part in Britten’s recognition of folksong in the 1930s. For this song in particular Foreman writes of how ‘all memories of Moeran’s harmonisation are instantly banished by the guitar’s punchy chords and the eerie murmuring of the guitar demi-semi-quavers in the final verse.

Pears and Bream duly sang the song as part of a selection of encores at their 1958 Aldeburgh Festival recital.

Thoughts

The snap of the guitar’s opening chords are a breath of fresh air, a new dimension to the form of folksong arrangements in Britten’s hand. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would assume he had been writing for the instrument for years on end, another indication of his quick adaptability with new instruments.

The song itself is a curious one, and rather sad – about a man who ‘shot his own true love in the room of a swan’, but Britten gives it such a taut accompaniment that it works extremely well.

This song feels like the turning of a page, as we seemingly head towards a more austere approach in Britten’s vocal works.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Julian Bream (guitar) (Newton Classics)
Robert Tear (tenor), Timothy Walkter (guitar) (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Carlos Bonell (guitar) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Craig Ogden (guitar) (Hyperion)

While Pears and Bream are obviously ones to hear, Langridge and Bonell are the pairing for me in this song, with a dramatic performance – a snap of the heels from Bonell, and a tight and rather edgy tone from the tenor.

Spotify

Pears and Bream can be heard here, while Langridge and Bonell are here. An older version from Ian Partridge and Jukka Savijoki can be found here. Meanwhile the Moeran version referred to above, sung by Marcus Farnsworth with pianist John Talbot, can be found by clicking here.

Also written in 1956: Frank Martin – Études for string orchestra

Next up: Antiphon, Op.56a

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