A Britten Song Festival

By Horder, Mervyn | Contemporary Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

A Britten Song Festival


Horder, Mervyn, Contemporary Review


Sponsored mainly by the Britten-Pears Trust and BBC Radio 3, the Wigmore Hall has been presenting this winter a sequence of 15 concerts built round the songs of Benjamin Britten. Sponsorship is still necessary while Londoners get used to the changed concert going hours being offered to them: the ten 8.00 pm concerts of the series were all packed, the shorter 'rush hour' 6.00 pm concerts not nearly so well attended.

It is natural to think of such a venture as a kind of gladiatorial display with Britten matched in the arena against song composers of other nationalities: Mozart, Schubert, Schumann (twice), Wolf, Mahler, French, Russians, Americans and, for England, a Dowland/Purcell evening. The two accompanists, Malcolm Martineau and Julius Drake, who chose the programmes exercised dexterity in fitting the whole mosaic together in a manner accessible to a mixed audience new to such a proceeding. Some possible contestants, however, were noticeable by their absence: Brahms, Richard Strauss and all British song from Bishop onwards - no Parry, no Elgar, no Vaughan-Williams. Striking too was the comparatively low voltage of the Mahler and Mendelssohn contributions to the whole.

Songs, broadly speaking, are of two kinds: those where the music follows the words, and those where the words follow, and are fitted into a framework dictated by, the music. What most people understand by 'a song' - which includes the great German and French Lieder, to say nothing of American musical comedy hits - belongs to the second class. Britten's big song cycles, and most of his operas, belong to the first, where declamation, often of the greatest subtlety, is all; but one of the values of this festival has been the disinterring of such early works as Tit for Tat and the Opus 7 songs written in 1933 with child singers in mind, also of Paul Bunyan and the Auden cabaret songs, where he was still aiming to capture the rudiments of writing a tune. At the age of 20 he did once succeed incontrovertibly, with the New Year carol 'Levidew', two pages which uniquely achieve repose and are some of the most haunting of all his work.

Once he had swung into the mainstream of composition, his mind raced for the rest of his life, often against the clock, always against the clock of his own impetuousness. Not for him Brahms's advice to 'let it rest, let it rest and keep going back to it and working at it over and over again'. Besides the sheer cleverness with which friends and enemies alike have always credited him there is this constant element of the hectic in all he did, demanding something of the same from his interpreters; and, for me, there is a hint of heartlessness about it all - the work admirable, but not loveable, with little to establish it in the musical affections in the way that say Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Faure are established. He himself knew his own limitations of course, and in an aside to a friend as they walked down Tottenham Court Road together in 1945 (the year of Peter Grimes) pinpointed one of them exactly: 'I now think I have all the technique to do anything. I must be more.' How far did he ever succeed in this aim?

To climax several of his choral works Britten made up for his missing melodic invention by the use of established hymn tunes, skilfully contrived to both emphasize and even extend their intrinsic power: the relentless surging of the waves through the orchestra in 'Eternal Father' (Noyes Fludde) is a vivid example. He also busied himself from an early age with the various problems - ethnic, prosodic, theatrical - connected with the 'dishing up' (Percy Grainger's phrase) of folk songs for concert use with piano accompaniment. Philip Reed's programme notes - valuable throughout to the point of probably making a set of these concert programmes a serious collector's item one day - point out that Britten set words in no less than six different languages and that his corpus of folk-song settings in some ways stands apart from the rest of his work. …

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