Listening to Britten – Bonny at Morn (with harp)


A Windy Day by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Bonny at Morn (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 4) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3’20”

Audio clips

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

Background and Critical Reception

This is the second of Britten’s settings of the Northumbrian tune Bonny at Morn, which was taken from W G Whittaker’s North Countrie Ballads, Songs and Pipe Tunes.

It is almost twice as long as the first setting for high voice and guitar, due to the insertion of a couple of linking passages for harp between each verse.

Thoughts

This setting of Bonny at Morn follows on effectively from Lemady, turning that song’s C major tonality to minor, before moving to F minor for the melody itself. The effect of changing the key in this way introduces a cloud that never quite goes, despite the relatively bright harp commentary that turns to major at the very end.

This casts a shadow over the song, a succession of warning notes that perhaps speak of Britten’s awareness that there is not long to go. As he often did with folksong settings, Britten sets up a canon between the singer and his harp, though this is never strictly imposed.

It is intriguing to compare Britten’s two settings of the folk song. The first, with guitar, is lightly nostalgic – but there is a gathering distance here between composer and listener.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

There is a strong sense of yearning in Langridge’s account, with the harp part superbly marshalled by Ellis. Bryn Lewis can hardly be heard as the introduction ghosts in, and MacDougall arrives with similar stealth. It is a striking effect.

Spotify

You can compare the version of Bonny at Morn with guitar from Philip Langridge and Carlos Bonell with the harp version with Osian Ellis, available here

Also written in 1976: Elliot Carter – A Symphony of Three Orchestras

Next up: Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn

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