Listening to Britten – Britain To America, Series II No.13: Where Do We Go From Here?


Iowa in the Pacific; Indiana can be seen in the distance. Image obtained through Wikimedia Commons

Britain To America, Series II No.13: Where Do We Go From Here? – Incidental music for alto voice and instrumental ensemble (January 1943, Britten aged 29)

Text Louis MacNeice
Duration not known – vocal number is 2’10”

Background and Critical Reception

‘Britten’s skill as a composer of radio music was well known before the war and it is not surprising to find the BBC keen to obtain his services for similar work in wartime, though up to March 1941 it had been BBC policy not to employ conscientious objectors’.

So reads a note in the ever-revealing Letters from a Life, Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed’s collection of selected letters and diary entries of Britten. This note, from volume 2 of the collection, details the time when Britten was asked to supply music for three radio programmes written by Louis MacNeice, which were a collaborative effort with CBS in New York.

Where do we go from here? was broadcast on 3 January 1943, and around that time Mitchell and Reed draw attention to a certain poet who heard them on the radio. ‘Have heard some of the Monday night broadcasts’, writes W.H. Auden. ‘What trash.’

Thoughts

After a sweet introduction, the song opens up as a slightly more relaxed alternative to one of the Cabaret Songs. Britten’s orchestration is relatively rich, with saxophone, brass and swirling harp making themselves known around the text. The melody itself leans alternately on major and minor thirds in the verse, adding a slight bitterness to the mix.

Where do we go from here? sounds like a show tune, especially when the orchestra shadow the vocal line, before the grand ending. Yet the question at the heart of the song remains, in spite of the bravado.

Recordings used

Mary Carewe (mezzo-soprano), Hallé / Sir Mark Elder

Carewe has the ideal voice for this song, with a touch of nostalgia but not too much. The colourful orchestration is also an asset.

Spotify

The song can be heard here, as part of NMC’s recent Britten to America album.

Also written in 1943: Martinů – Violin Concerto no.2

Next up: Lord! I Married Me A Wife

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