Listening to Britten – Um Mitternacht


A Castle and Lake by Moonlight by Abraham Pether. Photo (c) Government Art Collection

Um Mitternacht, song for high voice and piano (April 1962, Britten aged 48)

Dedication ‘Meinem Freund, dem Prinzen Ludwig von Hessen und bei Rhein, zum fünfzigsten Geburtstag’ (‘My friend, Prince Ludwig of Hess and the Rhine, on his fiftieth birthday’)
Text Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Language German
Duration 3’30”

Audio

Um Mitternacht is performed here by baritone Ronan Collett and pianist Nicholas Rimmer in a live performance from Stuttgart:

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s preoccupation with the night reached a zenith in the late 1950s and 1960s. This, his only setting of Goethe, was inspired by a gift from Prince Ludwig of Hesse of the poet’s complete works in 1959. Philip Reed, writing in his booklet notes for the Ian Bostridge collection of Britten songs The Red Cockatoo, suggests the gift was to encourage Britten in his setting of German.

It had the desired effect with the composition of the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, which Britten had given the prince for his fiftieth birthday, and looked set to yield a substantial work based on Goethe’s poetry if the scribblings around the poems are anything to go by. Yet in the event this five-minute song is the only fully fledged survivor.

Reed describes how ‘the song’s subject matter is reflected by the oscillating figure in the piano’s right hand and the twelve tolling bell-like chords in its lower register, each one rooted on a different pitch of the chromatic scale’.

Thus Britten and the themes of the nocturnal and a particular brand of twelve-tone music were united once again.

Thoughts

It is almost impossible not to think of Mahler with a title like Um Mitternacht, even though Mahler’s setting was of the poet Friedrich Rückert. There is however a certain amount of crossover between the two stylistically, though an even bigger presence for me can be found in one of Mahler’s pupils. If I had heard this song blindfolded I might even have taken it to be by Alban Berg.

Britten creates a very evocative scene of the night hour through the tolling chords on the piano, before the song begins in the murky depths. It is dark indeed, and although the song is written for a high voice it does also work very well for baritone, which evokes a still darker atmosphere.

Listen to this at the end of the evening and it creates a chill in the air – another in an increasing number of vivid evocations of the night from Britten.

Recordings used

Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
James Geer (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)

Um Mitternacht is an increasingly popular recital song, and it is also well represented on record. Mark Padmore contributes two versions, though his recording for Hyperion with Roger Vignoles is by a whisker the more atmospheric. James Geer sings with great poise for Onyx, with a spacious piano part played by Malcolm Martineau. Yet the most successful account for me is that of Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson, who keenly inhabit the small hours.

As a postscript it is well worth hearing Ronan Collett’s version for baritone above, which brings a new perspective on the song.

Spotify

Only one version of Um Mitternacht could be found on Spotify – that mentioned above by James Geer and Malcolm Martineau, which can be heard by clicking here.

Also written in 1962: Vinicius de Moraes (words), Antonio Carlos Jobim (music) – The Girl from Ipanema

Next up: Psalm 150, Op.67

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