Listening to Britten – The False Knight upon the Road


Melting Snow, Ludham by Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

The False Knight upon the Road (Eight Folksong Arrangements / 7) – folksong arrangement for high voice and harp (April – June 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication Not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 3’30”

Audio clips

The first part of the Hyperion recording by soprano Lorna Anderson and harpist Bryn Lewis can be heard at their website

Background and Critical Reception

The penultimate setting of the eight made by Britten for high voice and harp, The False Knight upon the Road is also the most substantial. Lewis Foreman confirms it to be another song from the Appalachians, sung by Mrs T G Coates at Flag Bond, Tennessee on 1 September 1916, and published in Cecil Sharp’s collection of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.

Writing about the folksongs in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, Eric Roseberry notes how ‘An uncanny hypnotism develops in the strange, hauntingly repetitive ballad of The False Knight upon the Road, as if the child’s gaze becomes transfixed on its hapless victim.’

Thoughts

Of all the Britten works I have listened to this has been one of the most unsettling. It starts amiably enough, as the child meets the knight in the road and the two strike up a conversation. The harmonic language is relatively untroubled, the melody is attractive, and the child and knight appear to be getting on amiably enough.

But there are still clues for the upcoming discomfort that Britten lays in the harmony, with the harp’s tendency to move towards minor chords an unsettling feature, and sure enough the child moves to the dark side. This comes to a head when the knight exclaims, “I think I hear a bell!” and the child responds, “Yes, and it’s bringing you to hell!”

It is a chilling development, all the more so as the melody and accompaniment remain the same – but the words and their delivery have become much more sinister.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Lorna Anderson (tenor), Bryn Lewis (harp) (Hyperion)

Philip Langridge adds a real chill to the final stanzas of this arrangement, shouting out the words with great conviction. Lorna Anderson also sings this very well, her delivery of the words narrowing at this point.

Spotify

Langridge and Ellis can be heard here

Also written in 1976: Lutosławski – Mi-parti for orchestra

Next up: Bird Scarer’s Song

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