A Birthday Hansel, Op.92 – for high voice and harp (21 March 1975, Britten aged 61)
1 Birthday song
2 My early walk
3 Wee Willie Gray
4 My hoggie
5 Afton water
6 The winter
7 Leezie Lindsay
Dedication These songs were written at the special wish of Her Majesty The Queen for her mother’s seventy-fifth birthday, August 4th 1975
Text Robert Burns
Language Scottish dialect
An extract from the recording made by Peter Pears and Osian Ellis. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
‘I honestly do not think that anything in my life has given me greater pleasure than your birthday gift. It is very precious to me, and will I am sure give joy to your countless admirers.’
So wrote the Queen Mother to Britten on 18 August 1975, in receipt of her seventy-fifth birthday present, A Birthday Hansel, which Britten composed to a request from the Queen herself. A ‘hansel’ is in fact a ‘first gift to wish someone good luck’, and in choosing the poetry of Robert Burns Britten was noting the Queen Mother’s Scottish blood.
With Peter Pears and Osian Ellis now the chosen performing vehicle for his new songs, Britten broadened his repertoire for tenor and harp, choosing eight short poems for the combination – of which one, Ae fond kiss, was removed on account of its more sombre mood. Colin Matthews notes this may have been because of its extra-personal content and a reference to the growing lengthy absences from Aldeburgh of Peter Pears, laden as the tenor was with international engagements.
There is relatively scarce reference to the song cycle from Britten commentators. The Britten Companion barely mentions it, while Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer devotes just a single paragraph. ‘The choice of Scottish words and the generally carefree atmosphere was appropriate to its dedicatee’s Scottish childhood’, it says, ‘though there may also be some reflection of what Rita Thomson had brought into Britten’s life.’
In his biography of Peter Pears, Christopher Headington observes that ‘The final song in the cycle, called Leezie Lindsay, is marked ‘wild’ and is splendidly vigorous and reel-like, seeming to defy the age of the Queen Mother and Pears himself.’ John Bridcut declares the cycle ‘is not demanding listening, but weaves its own enchantment’, but Arnold Whittall finds ‘the work is not without its touches of melancholy, particularly in the haunting setting of The Winter‘, while he also observes ‘the tonally disorienting switches for the repetition of Leezie Lindsay’s motif’ in the final number.
A Birthday Hansel is for me one of the undiscovered late gems in Britten’s output, and it brings together nicely his sensibilities for setting folk song with his sparse, late-period scoring. For although his melodies are his own, Britten makes them sound as if sourced traditionally – which the last song, Leezie Lindsay, may well be, but the others are original. The harp provides the ideal instrumentation for these open air songs, particularly in the affectionate portrayal of the blackbirds, lapwing and stock dove in the lucid and rippling textures of Afton Water.
The opening birthday song itself sets the scene nicely, with the wide open texture of the harp but a little bit of tension from the semitone intervals Britten uses from the outset. Harmonically he is up to his old tricks here, especially in the closing bars, which slip from D major – where the song is expected to finish – into the unexpectedly bright climes of F major.
As John Bridcut notes, some of the songs cast a spell, especially Wee Willie Gray, ‘and his leather wallet’, where the singer and harp retreat to a very quiet dynamic, as if observing a spectre. My Hoggie is unexpectedly affecting, too, but the final Leezie Lindsay is a delight, the singer crying out ‘Hey-ya’ at the end in a melody that is a sped-up replica of the climax to Before life and after from Winter Words. It is an unexpectedly affirmative finish.
Not unexpectedly there is also a dark side just beneath the surface of these songs, glimpsed particularly when The Winter reaches the words, ‘Now ev’ry thing is glad, while I am very sad, since my true love is parted from me.’ This is surely another reference to Pears’ frequent absences from the ill composer’s side, which Britten can make while keeping a largely positive countenance for his birthday subject.
Peter Pears (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Decca)
Mark Wilde (tenor), Lucy Wakeford (harp) (Naxos)
There appear to be just two available recordings of A Birthday Hansel, from each ends of their respective performers’ careers. Peter Pears and Osian Ellis have a wonderful ‘back and forth’ in their account.
I was distracted a little listening to Pears, but that was purely my fault, for I could still hear Aschenbach – which goes to show how thoroughly he had integrated himself into that character. Yet his is an agile and extremely enjoyable performance, especially in the mysterious Wee Willie Gray, the sorrowful My Hoggie and the extrovert Leezie Lindsay.
I really warmed to Mark Wilde’s version, because of its authentic ‘Scottishness’, which really brings Burns’ poetry alive. Lucy Wakeford is excellent too.
Both recordings of A Birthday Hansel can be heard by clicking on this playlist.
Also written in 1975: Malcolm Arnold – Fantasy for harp, Op.117
Next up: Phaedra, Op.93