Listening to Britten – Avenging and bright


Panoramic View of Dublin by Thomas Bate (attrib to), 1699. Photo (c) Number 1 Royal Crescent

Avenging and bright (Crooghan A Venee) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.1 (Moore’s Irish Melodies)) – folksong arrangement for high voice and piano (1957, Britten aged 43)

Dedication Anthony Gishford – director of Boosey & Hawkes
Text Thomas Moore
Language English
Duration 1’30”

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)

Avenging and bright (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

Avenging and bright (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

The fourth book of Britten’s folksong arrangements is given over to the traditional music of Ireland, but more specifically that of the eighteenth century composer Thomas Moore. Britten chose ten of his melodies for setting, but although they were briefly popular when he was performing they have slipped from the repertoire in more recent years.

John Bridcut is unequivocal about the possible reason, and is rather dismissive of the whole fourth volume. ‘Britten also published ten folksongs from Ireland’, he writes, ‘but these are seldom heard now, and no wonder. Most of them sound routine, and lack interest as they ramble on, slow and purposeless.’

Eric Roseberry, writing about the folksongs in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, is a little kinder. He describes the ‘fierce false relations’ that are ‘suggestive of the baroque martial genre (and Britten’s own keyboard realisation of it) in Purcell and Handel.’

Thoughts

Often Britten’s folksong arrangements have a certain charm, but I could find no evidence of this in Avenging and bright. In fact I found this to be a rather uncomfortable song, with an unremittingly harsh sonority from the piano in particular, its dissonances jarring against the vocal line. This is perhaps inevitable given the text Britten is responding to, but it would not be so friendly for the audience either.

For the third verse Britten introduces a restless bass line in the piano part, giving this verse an even darker colour than the two preceding it.

The song is a military march, but is not in any sense a rousing one, resigned to the aftermath of war, perhaps. It does not develop its verses particularly, nor have an obvious point of light and shade. For that reason it is one of the least appealing of the folksongs I have heard so far.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Hyperion)

Unusually here Pears has to snatch his breath rather between the phrases, so the performance with Britten makes the song even more restless. The piano sound is brittle and unremitting.

Regina Nathan sings with a bright tone, but the soprano voice also sounds quite harsh in this song.

Spotify

Pears and Britten can be heard here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johson are here. Meanwhile Ailish Tynan sings the song as part of her release An Irish Album with Iain Burnside here. A more traditional arrangement of the song can be heard in this recording by John McCormack.

Also written in 1957: Copland – Orchestral Variations

Next up: Sail on, sail on

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