'Within It Lie Ancient Melodies': Dowland's Musical Rhetoric and Britten's Songs from the Chinese

By Dwyer, Benjamin | Musical Times, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

'Within It Lie Ancient Melodies': Dowland's Musical Rhetoric and Britten's Songs from the Chinese


Dwyer, Benjamin, Musical Times


MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the influence of Henry Purcell upon Benjamin Britten's vocal music. There is no doubt that the Baroque composer's innate gift for setting the English language had a profound effect on Britten, for whom the voice played such a central role. Britten's affiliation with the early master can be seen in the idiosyncratic realisations he made of several of Purcell's compositions, from Dido and Aeneas and other stage works to numerous songs. Reconstructions of the latter, for voice and piano, have often been dismissed by contemporary musicologists and early-music specialists as anachronistic and lacking in authenticity - their dramatic character and distinctive harmony illustrate Britten's imprint as much as they do Purcell's. They do point, however, to an extraordinary symbiosis of the two composers' compositional styles and expose the deep association Britten felt with Purcell.

Similar claims have been made for Britten's affiliation with John Dowland, though these have largely centred on his use of selected lute-songs as a basis for variation. However, Dowland's influence on Britten in terms of compositional procedure has not been sufficiendy examined. Focusing on the song cycle for tenor and guitar, Songs from the Chinese op. 58, this paper argues that Britten assimilated Dowland's virtuosity in musical rhetoric so acutely and instinctively that it became an inherent aspect of his own compositional technique.

As a young composer, Britten's diary entries graphically highlight his refusal to accept the type of 'English' music that was much in vogue at the time. He strongly opposed Vaughan Williams's determination to forge a national tradition of art music bound to and developed from English folk song.' Britten rejected this development for two reasons. Firstly, under the influence of the left-wing WH Auden, he was uncomfortable with the rhetoric around folk-based art music that linked it to a belief in a particular sort of English identity, which was sometimes accompanied by notions of English racial superiority over other groups.2 Secondly, he was unwilling to accept the limitation of using modal material as the sole basis for composition. Britten, therefore, consciously drew his influences from cosmopolitan sources, largely circumventing the Pastoral School headed by Vaughan Williams, and sought to redefine English music by connecting with the great English composers of the past. The genius of Dowland and Purcell as song composers positioned them as perfect models and, indeed, Britten's frequent reference to their music is evidence of his determined attempts to place himself as a natural inheritor of that vocal tradition: 'One of my chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare ànce the days of Purcell.'3

It is true that in England song composition declined after the death of Purcell. The overwhelming success of Handel's oratorios and operas had a debilitating impact on the more intimate song genre. All over Europe the phenomenon of the public concert, the erection of larger concert halls and technical developments in instrumental construction brought the symphony and concerto to the fore. As a result, song was increasingly confined to the drawing room and the salon - a practice, which, in Viennese society, reached its apogee in the celebrated Schubertiads. There were in England, however, no home-grown composers of Schubert's standing, and it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that song made something of a comeback with composers such as Frederick Delius, Arnold Bax and John Ireland, and with the folk-song revival headed by Vaughan Williams. Britten, however, wanting to circumvent both impressionistic, pastoral idylls and folk-based art songs, consciously attempted to forge a connection between his own work and the exemplary music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. …

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