Listening to Britten – Sweet was the song


View across inside of Culross Abbey. (c) Ben Hogwood

Sweet was the song – carol for women’s voices (SSAA), unaccompanied (April 1966, Britten aged 52)

Dedication not known
Text William Ballet’s lute book
Language English
Duration 3′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten had already set this carol on a previous occasion, as part of the Christ’s Nativity suite, but here he revised it for women’s voices, split in to two soprano and alto parts each, for performance at the 1966 Aldeburgh Festival.

Ates Orga, writing in the booklet for the New London Children’s Choir recording on Naxos, describes it as a ‘challenging example of an apprentice work subsequently revised’.

It is not immediately clear what Britten revised – it may just have been the distribution of the parts – but he keeps the same tune.

Thoughts

There is a wide scope to a lot of Britten’s Christmas music, a remoteness that draws the listener in.

In the case of Sweet was the Song it is the cooing refrain (‘lulla, lullaby’) that does this, providing an endearing punctuation to the words. As the two performing elements converge there are some particularly beautiful harmonies, and the complete lack of bass gives the music a weightless quality.

The cold of winter is clearly evoked here – but there is warmth at its heart too.

Recordings used

The Wilbye Consort / Sir Peter Pears (Eloquence)
New London Children’s Choir / Ronald Corp (Naxos)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer (Chandos)

There is more vibrato to the version from the Wilbye Consort, which is more obviously women than children, while the New London Children’s Choir have a wide-eyed innocence under Ronald Corp. Harry Christophers’ version with the Sixteen is quite fast in comparison, while Paul Spicer’s account with the Finzi Singers is poised and measured.

Spotify

The New London Children’s Choir under Corp can be heard here, while Harry Christophers conducts the Sixteen here. Paul Spicer and the Finzi Singers on Chandos are here.

Also written in 1965: Shostakovich – String Quartet no.11 in F minor, Op.122

Next up: The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op.77

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