Listening to Britten – The Minstrel Boy


Sir John Irwin, KB, reviewing Troops in Dublin (1782) by Francis Wheatley.
photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London: (c) Francis Wheatley. Photo (c) Southampton City Art Gallery

The Minstrel Boy (The Moreen) (Folksong Arrangements, Volume 4 no.4 (Moore’s Irish Melodies)) – folksong arrangement for four piece 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)

The Minstrel Boy (Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano))

The Minsterl Boy (Regina Nathan (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano))

Background and Critical Reception

This song is something of a companion piece to How sweet the answer, sharing its first performance in Switzerland in April 1957.

It falls in to the category of what Eric Roseberry terms ‘war songs’, of which he identifies three in the set of ten Thomas Moore settings, which Britten eventually published in 1960.

Thoughts

A military-style fanfare begins this folksong setting on the left hand of the piano, before the singer enters high up in the range. It is one of Britten’s bracing, outdoor numbers, but its harmony is unusual . Rather than follow the trajectory of G major, as the vocal line does, the piano consistently presents an inverted C major chord, which makes the tonal framework of the song much less obvious.

This fits the opening couplet of the song, which is hardly cheery: ‘The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone; In the ranks of death you’ll find him’.

As often happens with Britten folksong settings, the volume dips for the second verse and the music begins to turn in on itself, revealing its darker side. Here, though, there is a happy ending, as the songs ‘shall never sound in slav’ry’.

Recordings used

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

The piano sound on Pears and Britten’s recording is a little odd, the left hand resonating rather too strongly. Pears, however, is in full military regalia.

The pseudo-military fanfares in the piano part are perhaps most keenly caught by Malcolm Martineau, whose singer Regina Nathan dips appropriately in volume for the second verse.

Philip Langridge slows slightly for the second part of each verse, a bit of completely valid indulgence that works well.

Spotify

Pears and Britten can be heard here, while Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson can be heard here.

Also written in 1957: Rubbra – Symphony no.7

Next up: At the mid hour of night

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