Listening to Britten – Lord! I Married Me A Wife


Horse and Cart by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Lord! I Married Me A Wife (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 1) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 1′

Audio clips

The first half of the Hyperion recording by Jamie MacDougall and Bryn Lewis can be heard at their website

Background and Critical Reception

The Eighth volume of folksong arrangements marks the last works of Britten’s life both for Peter Pears and for a solo singer. Britten was now no longer able to play the piano for any length of time, and chose the harp – and, just as importantly, Osian Ellis – as his choice for the accompaniment in these works.

Britten commentators agree that the leaner textures of the harp suit the sparseness of these late arrangements. Eric Roseberry, writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, says, ‘The sonority of the harp is a characteristic motif in Britten – from the evergreen A Ceremony of Carols, through the Nocturne, with its memorable imagery in the Coleridge setting of the ‘beauteous’ boy plucking fruits, to its rarefied collaboration with the strange words of the early T.S. Eliot in The Death of St Narcissus.

Donald Mitchell, in his notes for the first complete edition of the folksongs as released on Collins Classics, writes how ‘Over half of the harp folk songs had been brought to Britten’s attention by Imogen Holst, some as long ago as 1958. This particular song was from the southern Appalachians by Cecil Sharp.

Thoughts

Roseberry draws out the ‘spiteful’ use of repetition Britten achieves on the words ‘wife’, ‘life’ and ‘work’ in this song. That goes some way to explaining how the marriage is a far from happy one. ‘She gave me trouble all my life, made me work in the cold rain and snow!’ moans the singer – and the harp backs him up by vividly evoking the colder weather in particular. What a hardship!

It’s this darker edge that carries through Britten’s later folk song settings, using textures that ought to be lighter – but actually making them rather icy.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
John Shirley-Quirk (baritone), Osian Ellis (harp) (Meridian)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

Langridge is the world weary one here, and you can picture him singing with his shoulders laid low as Osian Ellis paints the vivid pictures around him. MacDougall, by far the younger singer, is fresher – but still sings well, with Lewis an oppulent accompanist.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard here, though if you want a deeper voice John Shirley-Quirk and Ellis are here

Also written in 1976: George Crumb – Dream Sequence

Next up: She’s like the swallow

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