Listening to Britten – Who are these children?, Op.84


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Who are these Children?, Op.84 – Lyrics, rhymes and riddles by William Soutar for tenor and piano (Spring – Summer 1969, Britten aged 55)

1 A riddle
2 A laddie’s sang
3 Nightmare
4 Black day
5 Bed-time
6 Slaughter
7 A riddle (The child you were)
8 The larky lad
9 Who are these children?
10 Supper
11 The children
12 The auld aik

Discarded numbers:
Dawtie’s devotion
The gully
Tradition

Dedication Tertia Liebenthal
Text William Soutar
Language English; Scots
Duration 20′

Audio

Clips from the recording made by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Roger Vignoles can be heard below. With thanks to Hyperion.

1 A riddle

2 A laddie’s sang

3 Nightmare

4 Black day

5 Bed-time

6 Slaughter

7 A riddle (The child you were)

8 The larky lad

9 Who are these children?

10 Supper

11 The children

12 The auld aik

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s final collection of songs for voice and piano is in fact a blend of two song cycles. As Graham Johnson points out in his chapter on the works for voice and piano in The Britten Companion, the poet William Soutar ‘wrote his longer poems in English but his poems for children in Scots. The cycle interweaves the delightful short poems with the more serious and anguished English poems, contrasting the horrors of the warring outside world with the innocent, unselfconscious world of the young.’

There are eight Scots poems and four English ones, the latter tending to be more substantial settings. Once finished the cycle was not immediately performed, due to an illness afflicting Peter Pears. As the Britten Thematic Catalogue also points out, there are three discarded songs from the cycle that were published in 1997.

Roger Vignoles, writing in booklet notes for his recording with Mark Padmore on Hyperion, notes how the songs ‘show a remarkable adaptation of his own essential style to the idiom. In the Scots songs of Who are these children? it is above all the vocal inflection that is so brilliantly captured, though Britten is also adept at imparting a correspondingly nasal wheeze to the piano part, with its frequent suggestion of bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy.’

John Bridcut labels it ‘the least known of Britten’s song cycles for tenor and piano’, ‘only now coming into its own…caught perhaps in the slipstream of A Children’s Crusade.’ He notes how two of the songs capture the bewilderment of children in wartime, and also how two deal with the felling of trees. The closing song, The Auld Aik, is described as ‘a Winter Words-like song of utter simplicity and compression, a sequence of triads which starts ‘pp, heavily’ and ends on the saddest E flat major chord anyone ever wrote.’

Thoughts

While these are fundamentally songs about children, there is an icy heart to this uncompromising song cycle – but the closer one listens the greater the rewards.

This is Britten keeping the white hot emotional intensity of his previous works, but finding once again a means of projecting them out to his audience in a way that moves more deeply, unlike recent works such as A Children’s Crusade that simply leave the listener numb.

There is a charm to be found in the innocence of these songs, particularly in the way Britten uses the Scots dialect, and the shorter songs capture the freedom and impudence of childhood. His mapping of the bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy figuration on the piano is also masterly. Yet a frisson of peril and darkness is always present throughout the cycle, which leaves a powerful impression.

That frisson is briefly evident in the quixotic setting of A Riddle, with its dissonant march on the piano, but come right to the fore in the coldest of all settings, Nightmare. This has a stark and chilling beauty right from the ostinato that Britten brings out from the frozen right hand of the piano which eventually drops down to the lower range to describe some of Soutar’s vivid verse, such as ‘the wound in the broken wood’ of a lightning strike on a tree.

Slaughter provides even less comfort, and as Graham Johnson says this harks back to the uncompromising nature of Britten’s The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, written as they were in the spectre of war – at the same time William Soutar was writing these poems. The octaves of the piano duel with the tenor in a joust that continues for an unnerving minute and a half.

The dissonance of the title song is also grating, and this is Britten speaking out against the atrocities of hunting once more. The piano’s line is a fanfare of open conflict, as the tenor sings of ‘Brightness of blood upon the coats and on the women’s lips’. Meanwhile The Children is one of those Britten songs that makes its listener fall utterly silent, lost in contemplation and, in this case, dark thought. At the line ‘Silence is in the air: the stars move to their places’ the piano twinkles in the right hand, offering some hope amid the desolation.

And so to The Auld Aik, Soutar’s Scots tale of the felling of an old oak. As with previous Britten cycles the final song is once again its crowning glory, though this moves with a great weight of age and possibly illness, lifting one foot and then the other with ponderous dignity until the final chord of which John Bridcut speaks.

The discarded songs – all written in Scots – are worth noting. Dawtie’s Devotion has a calm serenity that is almost Schubertian, The Gully and Tradition have more biting humour. On hearing them outside of the cycle it is difficult to determine where they might have been included – hence, no doubt, their omission.

I found Where are these children? to be an intensely moving song cycle, but a confrontational one also, as if Britten is deliberately addressing those subject areas and passions that still rage within him – man’s cruelty to man, man’s cruelty to animals and the innocent role of the child who gets caught up in everything. Because of this, Who are these children? leaves a very deep impression indeed.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (BBC Legends)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Mark Wilde (tenor), David Owen Norris (piano) (Naxos)
Toby Spence (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) (Onyx)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Antonio Pappano (piano) (English songs only) (EMI)

My personal preference is for the more modern recordings that bring across the coldness of this cycle. Of course that is not to say the Pears and Britten recording is deficient, but that I found the tenor’s timbre and vibrato a little too rich for the starkness of Britten’s settings – moreso in the Decca version than the BBC live recording, made at Snape Maltings in September 1971. They do of course create an intense emotional interpretation, as it almost goes without saying, and Britten’s piano playing retains its characteristically sharp insights.

Mark Wilde is an almost mandatory listen if you want to get better acquainted with the songs, for his natural Scottish accent brings the words squarely off the page. In tandem with some excellent piano playing from David Owen Norris, this is an interpretation that gets right to the heart of Soutar’s poetry and Britten’s response.

Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles are also excellent throughout, creating a kind of emotional privacy that makes Britten’s English settings speak even more poignantly. Nicky Spence and Malcolm Martineau show some of the withdrawn qualities of the song settings too, as if they are retreating into private thought – Nightmare is particularly strong in this respect. Spence also enjoys the brief indignation of Black Day. Both versions operate at almost exactly the same tempo.

Spotify

This playlist offers several versions of the cycle, beginning with the Decca recording made by Pears and Britten, then Toby Spence and Malcolm Martineau, Mark Wilde and David Owen Norris and finally a further version from Daniel Norman and Christopher Gould, released on BIS. All except Britten and Pears include the three discarded songs. Also added at the bottom are Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano in their recording of the four English settings.

Also written in 1969: Ligeti – Ramifications

Next up: Owen Wingrave, Op.85

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