Listening to Britten – Tit for Tat


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Tit for Tat – a collection of five revised songs, for voice and piano (originals from June 1928 – January 1931, all revised Summer 1968, Britten aged 54)

1 A Song of Enchantment
2 Autumn
3 Silver
4 Vigil
5 Tit for Tat

Dedication not known
Text Walter de le Mare
Language English
Duration 10′

Audio

Clips from the composer’s recording with John Shirley Quirk (songs 1-3) and from Gerald Finley and Julius Drake (songs 4-5) can be heard below. With thanks to Decca and Hyperion.

A Song of Enchantment

Autumn

Silver

Vigil

Tit for Tat

Background and Critical Reception

During his fifties Britten was looking back at his own youthful works with increasing regularity, and beginning to realise their potential either through revision or almost complete overhaul.

Such was the case with Tit for Tat, a concise collection of five songs set to the words of Walter de la Mare, one of the younger Britten’s favourite poets. The quintet received their first performance in a recital given by John Shirley Quirk and Britten at the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival, and the accompanying program note told of how Britten had ‘cleaned them very slightly’.

The Britten Thematic Catalogue reveals the exact original dates of each of the songs, with A Song of Enchantment dating from January 1929, Autumn from January 1931, Silver from June 1928, Vigil December 1930 and Tit for Tat itself in the first two weeks of 1929.

Thinking again of de le Mare, Britten wrote, ‘I do feel that the boy’s vision has a simplicity and clarity which might have given a little pleasure to the great poet, with his unique insight into a child’s mind.’ Michael Oliver recounts that the five songs of Tit for Tat were written around the same time as the Three Two-Part Songs. He describes them as having ‘a melodic freshness that ideally complements the lyricism of de la Mare’s verse and their shrewd insights into both the magic and wonder of childhood and the darkness and cruelty that can haunt it: one of the songs (I take him to mean the title song) is a cry of protest at thoughtless cruelty to animals, all the more horrible because practised by a child.’

John Bridcut finds the songs ‘mostly at home in the world of Peter Warlock, one of the leading song composers of Britten’s teens.’

Thoughts

This is Britten realizing his own ideas, in effect, returning to childhood thoughts as if he wanted to keep this part of his personality to the fore as he grew older.

Interestingly the preoccupation with night also continues, the third and fourth songs beginning with lines that reference the small hours. ‘Slowly, silently, now the moon’, begins Silver, while Vigil‘s opening lines are ‘Dark is the night’. There is an underlying sadness here, though, and the sense formed ever greater in my mind at least of Britten yearning for his youth while he reconstructs this material. A Song of Enchantment definitely carries this reflective side, especially in its chromatic piano line.

The musical language is more obviously tonal, but is still prone to occasional and unpredictable departures from that thought, even within the confines of a short song, as all of these are. Yet the final song, the title song, feels like a different world altogether, more folk-like in its writing and with a lower range. It does however have a certain charm that ought to end the collection on a more positive note, but the rather sinister words dictate otherwise.

Ultimately the collection is neither late nor early Britten, falling outside the style we have come to recognise from both eras, as if the composer himself is uncertain of the direction in which he should face. Emotionally these songs are still concentrated, but feel distracted because of this.

Recordings used

John Shirley Quirk (baritone), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
John Shirley Quirk (baritone), Philip Ledger (piano) (Meridian)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)
Philip Smith (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (Onyx)

Tit for Tat has fared well on record. As well as John Shirley-Quirk and Britten on imperious form for Decca, there is the sonorous tone of Gerald Finley, in wonderful partnership with Julius Drake. Shirley-Quirk recorded the cycle again with Philip Ledger, an account that is more readily available than Decca’s. Philip Smith and Malcolm Martineau make a strong impression, too, although Smith sounds like a different singer in the final lower-range song.

Spotify

This <a href="http://open.spotify.com/user/benjammin22/playlist/3qQIvoybYtzgJK7G56SHHw&quot;Spotify playlist includes the latter of Shirley-Quirk’s two recordings, alongside those by Philip Smith and Malcolm Martineau, Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside on Naxos, and Derek Lee Ragin and Julius Drake, caught in an excellent live recording.

Also written in 1968: Berio – Sinfonia

Next up: Children’s Crusade, Op.82

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This entry was posted in English, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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