The Red House, Aldeburgh – photo by Philip Vile. Image courtesy of http://www.britten100.org
Songs from the Chinese, Op.58 for high voice and guitar (Autumn 1957, Britten aged 43)
1 The big chariot (from ‘The book of songs’)
2 The old lute (Po Chü-i)
3 The autumn wind (Wu-ti)
4 The herd-boy (Lu Yu)
5 Depression (Po Chü-i)
6 Dance song (from The book of songs)
Dedication For Peg and Lu, from Ben, Peter and Julian (Prince Ludwig of Hess and the Rhine, and his wife Princess Margaret)
Text Chinese poets, translated Arthur Waley
You can listen to the recent recording of Songs from the Chinese by tenor Ian Bostridge and guitarist Xuefei Yang here, on the EMI Classics website.
Background and Critical Reception
Britten moved to the Red House in November 1957, the place he and Peter Pears were to live right up until his death in 1976, and Songs from the Chinese was the first piece Britten wrote after the move.
It was again written for Peter Pears to sing, though this time with the guitarist Julian Bream as his partner. Britten had begun setting folksongs for the new partnership to perform in their recitals, which featured Bream playing both lute and guitar parts. Because of this, Britten includes as the second song in the cycle The Old Lute, an affectionate dig at Bream’s instrument.
Humphrey Carpenter at this point suggests Britten’s move put him at a greater distance from some of his friends, Sir Michael Tippett being one of them. Tippett goes as far as to state he was also writing too much for Pears by this point. Certainly the tenor’s reaction to The Prince of the Pagodas suggests he was much more interested in Britten’s music when he was its principal performer.
Britten chose texts that Carpenter says are ‘concerned with middle age’; though he goes on to find more explicit sexual connections between the sources and Britten’s own life. The concluding Dance Song is, for him, ‘an erotic chase, a hunt for a unicorn, a traditional symbol of chastity. The implication seems to be that the only remedy for despair at ageing is love and sexuality, though the singer’s reiterated cries of ‘Alas!’ suggest that, despite the passing of years, guilt about this has not vanished.’
Arnold Whittall, writing in the booklet notes for Philip Langridge’s recording on Chandos, describes how the cycle’s ‘pungent orientalism makes it a pendant to the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas‘. He goes on to note, ‘the music has a particular harmonic and rhythmic subtlety demonstrating the composer’s keen response to what was, for him, a new medium.’ In Depression he finds that Britten ‘makes its lamentation intensely eloquent through its very restraint – a modern rethinking of similar qualities in Dowland.’
The keen sense of economy we now feel in Britten’s writing is at its most evident in Songs from the Chinese, which is an incredibly compact and sparsely dressed song cycle.
The new sound world of singer and guitar suits where Britten’s musical language is at the moment, with much thinner harmonies that are often now reduced to two parts. This in itself can be suggestive of older age, the music stretched across bare resources, but there is still an energy that runs through the faster music in this cycle.
The text is very curious indeed, short and to the point – again an idea fit for Britten’s new-found brevity. It is also very downcast if taken as read on the page. ‘Don’t think about the sorrows of the world’, says The Big Chariot, ‘you will only make yourself wretched’. Or, in Depression, ‘Do not wonder that my body sinks to decay; Though my limbs are old, my heart is older yet’.
Britten finds an obsessive motif for ‘the sorrows of the world’, while the songs The Autumn Wind and The Herd-Boy are intensely reflective. Finally I’m afraid to say that after a few listens Dance Song became incredibly wearisome, purely because the ‘alas for the unicorn’ refrain got in to my head and obstinately refused to leave for several days!
Overall, though, the cycle is a very intriguing piece of work that explores a very free melodic approach and some refreshing writing for the guitar, Britten quickly getting to grips with his new form of expression. It may be very odd at times, and seldom heard, but the Songs from the Chinese is fiercely original, despite its protestations of weariness.
Peter Pears (tenor), Julian Bream (guitar) (BMG)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Stephen Marchionda (guitar) (Chandos)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Xuefei Yang (guitar) (EMI Classics)
Ian Partridge (tenor), Jukka Savijoki (guitar) (Ondine)
Pears and Bream give a performance of striking character, with Bream’s guitar contributions especially responsive to the text. Rather appropriately, given Britten’s inspiration for the cycle, Philip Langridge’s recording with Stephen Marchionda is later in the tenor’s career. It has a wider vibrato that can threaten the pitch of higher and longer notes – but otherwise is as intense as ever.
Ian Bostridge’s new recording is excellent, and the tenor’s tendency to occasionally flatten his upper notes (in tone rather than pitch) can work very well when used sparingly. Ian Partridge, meanwhile, sings brilliantly, helped by the spiky counterpoint of Savijoki. His is part of an album containing songs by Britten and Berkeley that has much to recommend it.
This playlist collects together three versions – that by Pears and Bream, then Bostridge and Yang, and finally Partridge and Jukka Savijoki.
Also written in 1957: Stravinsky – Agon
Next up: In Memoriam Dennis Brain