Listening to Britten – The Ascent of F6


The Ascent of F6 – first UK edition

The Ascent of F6 – Incidental music for female voice, 2 male voices, chorus, percussion, ukulele and piano duet (4 hands) (6 – 23 February 1937, Britten aged 23)

Overture
IIA Entr’acte [Mr & Mrs A]
IIB Entr’acte [Mr & Mrs A]
III Entr’acte & Gunn’s song
IV Pantomime & Mother’s song
V Chant (unaccompanied)
VIA Climbing music
VIB Climbing music
VIC Funeral march & chorus (off)
VII Gunn’s song
VIII Cabaret jazz song
IX Mother’s song & chorus

Text W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood
Duration tbc

Film and Audio clips

Not yet available, but details of the first recording of The Ascent of F6 can be found on the NMC website

Background and Critical Reception

The Ascent of F6 came at a very important and downbeat time in Britten’s life. It is described by John Bridcut as ‘a substantial score’, that Britten wrote with ‘iron self-discipline’ following the news of the tragically early death of his mother. It includes the Funeral Blues, now often performed as part of the group of cabaret songs.

In the liner notes for the first recording of The Ascent of F6, released by NMC at the end of 2013, Philip Reed details how ‘The subject of mountaineering, which Auden regarded as fraught with psychological and political implications¸ had long fascinated him…the play evokes the hero myths of Britain’s recent imperial tradition, figures such as Scott and his Antarctic expeditions, Malory and Irving’s ill-fated attempt on Everest, and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame)’.

Reed also writes on how many of the principal numbers written by Britten are for evocation of atmosphere and change of scene – but that Britten’s setting of one of Auden’s most famous poems, Stop all the clocks, was one of which the composer was ‘justly proud’. He went on to arrange it for singer and piano as one of four cabaret songs.

The NMC press release describes this music as ‘Britten with a difference’, highlighting how ‘there are blues numbers, jazz, a ‘Tibetan’ chant, a Bach chorale and even a ukulele. The Bach chorale is taken from the St Matthew Passion.

Thoughts

Now that The Ascent of F6 has received its first ever recording, it is possible to offer an assessment of the music within.

Considering the limited resources available to him, Britten works wonders with Auden’s text, particularly in the literally timeless setting of the Funeral Blues, beginning with the immortal text ‘Stop all the clocks’, to which you feel the music has always been heading. It becomes the inevitable highlight of the score, though Britten shows his ever-expanding repertoire with a wide variety of styles throughout. The overture has elements of blues and even boogie-woogie, and the first vocal number, with Mr and Mrs A accompanied by the ukulele, offers in its chorus ‘I’ve got a date with love!’ an early preview of some of the forms he used later in Paul Bunyan. If anything the opening conjures Gershwin’s New York, with scrunched up, added-note harmonies.

Britten sets Auden’s text with great clarity, which is an important point to make as it does contain some tricky words. The two-piano texture can be dry but is always rhythmic. The Tibetan Chant and Climbing Music are unexpectedly striking, harking back to the music for Coal Face in their use of the lower male voices. There is music of great poignancy in Mother’s Song, which must have been hard for Britten to write in the circumstances.

With the solemn Bach chorale a moving way to finish, it becomes clear how Britten is able to bring sacred music in to play – a tactic he used with ever greater certainty in The Company of Heaven and Saint Nicolas.

Recordings used

Samuel West (narrator), Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore (NMC)

The Ascent of F6 kicks off a special anniversary album released in late 2013 by NMC called Britten to America, which looks at film and documentary scores he wrote across the Atlantic in the early 1940s. This and An American in England are first recordings, teamed with On The Frontier.

Samuel West is a brilliant narrator, bringing the text to life with his charismatic reading. The performance is sharp, too, making the most of the slightly dry sounds on offer instrumentally. Jean Rigby has a beautiful timbre in the Mother’s Song, while the Ex Cathedra men plumb the depths to great effect as the ascent of the mountain begins.

Spotify

The Ascent of F6 occupies the first seventeen tracks on the Britten to America album, and can be heard here

Also written in 1937: Ireland – These Things Shall Be

Next up: Roman Wall Blues

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