Suite for harp, op. 83 (March 1969, Britten aged 55)
Dedication Osian Ellis
5 Hymn (St Denio)
Clips of each movement are not available, but the Britten-Pears Foundaton has made a clip each from the Toccata (here) and the Nocturne (here), using the original recording made for Decca by Osian Ellis.
Background and Critical Reception
In his invaluable book Essential Britten, John Bridcut tells of the composer’s long-standing fascination for the harp: ‘he began writing for it as a prep-school boy, when he realised the extra colour it could give large orchestral scores such as his Symphony in D minor and Quatre chansons françaises.’
As he also points out, this work follows hot on the heels of the three church parables, where Britten had given the instrument an important and fluent role, and the English Opera Group harpist Osian Ellis had become a firm friend.
Eventually Britten was to ‘promote’ the harp as an instrument, capable of accompanying his folk song settings and song cycles, when illness sadly prevented him from playing alongside Peter Pears.
Most Britten commentators see the work as a bit of light relief from A Children’s Crusade and the soon to follow Who Are These Children?, but Bridcut identifies a darker centre, a ‘sinister feel in the central Nocturne, another Britten mood piece akin to the mood of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As an extra present for Ellis. Britten includes a Theme and Variations as his last movement, using the Welsh hymn tune St Denio but not fully revealing it until the end.
A pure C major is the setting for the outer movements of Britten’s Suite, which often sparkles with brightness, offering bright light against the darkness surrounding it (A Children’s Crusade, Who Are These Children?, Owen Wingrave). But even in the Overture, darker notes creep in towards the end with a spindly figure that works its way up through the upper register – a vivid throwback to the Nocturnal for guitar.
These contrasts between light and shade add a surprising amount of tension to the mix. The Toccata trips along with some incredibly intricate and exciting writing, but it also finishes with a characteristic suddenness, which Britten is all too fond of using now.
The night time writing is exquisite, the exploitation of the harmonics in the Nocturne itself also using the harp’s potential for sustain to project the music outwards, like moonlight spreading across a pool.
The Fugue feels very French to me, its subject reminiscent of Debussy’s Arabesque no.1. Despite its Welsh origins the Hymn leans that way also, beginning in the same key and with a very similar feel to Le jardin féerique from Ravel’s Ma Mère l’oye. Like that piece it becomes increasingly more elaborate, the final C major peroration similar to the explosion of colour in Ravel’s score.
Despite its occasional shadows – or perhaps because of them – the Suite for harp is a lovely and substantial interlude in a troubled period of Britten’s career.
Osian Ellis (Decca)
Osian Ellis (Meridian)
Claudia Antonelli (Arts)
Not surprisingly the version by Osian Ellis is the one to hear, either in a recording made for Decca or as part of a very well planned Britten anthology on Meridian, drawing largely on music from the late 1960s and including John Shirley Quirk and Philip Ledger performing Tit for Tat. Claudia Antonelli’s recording is also very fine, set alongside an intriguing program of twentieth-century harp music from Krenek, Hindemith, Bussotti, and Tailleferre.
Clicking on this link gives you access to a Spotify playlist that begins with Osian Ellis’s recording for Meridian, before exploring recordings made by Claudia Antonelli, Elisabeth Remy, Valérie Milot and Sarah O’Brien.
Also written in 1969: Gavin Bryars – The Sinking of the Titanic
Next up: Who are these children?, Op.84