Listening to Britten – How sweet the answer


Seashore at Howth, Ireland (1782) by Francis Wheatley. Photo (c) Southampton City Art Gallery

How sweet the answer (The Wren) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.3 (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 2′

Audio clips (with thanks to Decca and Hyperion)

How sweet the answer (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

How sweet the answer (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s setting of Thomas Moore’s Irish folksong How sweet the answer was first performed at the Kammermusiksaal, Graz, Switzerland, by himself and Peter Pears on 24 April 1957. This was roughly three years ahead of the publication of his complete set of ten Irish folksong arrangements in 1960.

In his booklet note on the folksongs for Hyperion, Lewis Foreman notes also how the song was performed at Cecil Sharp House in honour of the Folk Song Society’s Diamond Jubilee.

Eric Roseberry describes the ‘pentatonic imagery’ of this setting, and talks of how ‘Britten joins hands with Purcell in the ‘echo song’ genre, launched with Come you not from Newcastle?, and looks forward to one of Britten’s own echo songs, the first in the cycle The Poet’s Echo.

Thoughts

This is a lovely two minutes of reflection. Britten sets the scene immediately with an impressionistic haze created by the piano that sets up one of his most graceful and longing arrangements – and bizarrely, given its Irish origins, one of the most French sounding.

As the second verse progresses a note of mystery is added, the piano left hand delving deeper, before the song finishes with a beautiful echo, a two note phrase exchanged between singer and piano, before dying away into the middle distance.

It is a reverie that is actually rather touching, and not at all typical of the more austere sound we have become more accustomed to at this stage in Britten’s life.

Recordings used

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

Pears sounds at home here, his full tenor the ideal vehicle for the range, and Britten accompanies with wonderful sensitivity.
The brighter sound of Felicity Lott is gorgeous, the soprano singing with commendable restraint even in the upper register. Graham Johnson has an admirable lightness of touch.
The Irish soprano Regina Nathan has an endearing freshness to her voice, and sings very nicely too – as does Malcolm Martineau in the watery piano part.

Spotify

Pears and Britten perform How sweet is the answer here, while Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson can be heard here. Meanwhile Sarah Brightman and Geoffrey Parsons contribute their version here.

Also written in 1957: Takemitsu – Requiem for Strings

Next up: The Minstrel Boy

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