Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Benjamin Britten: ‘Winter Words’ lost songs.

The two songs that form the ‘appendix’ to Benjamin Britten’s great song cycle Winter Words are not usually heard when that work is performed. The songs were published in the latest score of this cycle, with the strict instructions that they are not to be given as an integral part of the work. In spite of their general lack of performance, they are worthy of our attention. Of course they can be played as separate entities, just so long as they are not sung back to back with the song cycle.

It is only quite recently that I heard these works, at least consciously, and my first reaction is to be quite glad that they are not included in the ‘official’ batting order of the song cycle. This would have surely upset the balance of the work which appears to be near perfect. Furthermore, it would be difficult to know where they would be slotted in, because in some ways Winter Words appears a complete journey for both the singer and the listener. So Britten’s admonition ought to be heeded. Yet, this is not to deny these two songs importance, interest and sheer attractiveness. Both are settings of ‘typical’ Thomas Hardy texts and are fine songs in their own right: they well deserve their place in the canon of English song. Both songs in their own way highlight the prevailing emotion of Winter Words – that of the inexorable passing of time. Both songs use typical Britten fingerprints, that are present in the song cycle: partial text repetitions, significant word painting and melismas.

The Children and Sir Nameless
Sir Nameless, once of Athelhall, declared:
"These wretched children romping in my park
Trample the herbage till the soil is bared,
And yap and yell from early morn till dark!
Go keep them harnessed to their set routines:
Thank God I've none to hasten my decay;
For green remembrance there are better means
Than offspring, who but wish their sires away."

Sir Nameless of that mansion said anon:
"To be perpetuate for my mightiness
Sculpture must image me when I am gone."
- He forthwith summoned carvers there express
To shape a figure stretching seven-odd feet
(For he was tall) in alabaster stone,
With shield, and crest, and casque, and word complete:
When done a statelier work was never known.

Three hundred years hied;
Church-restorers came,
And, no one of his lineage being traced,
They thought an effigy so large in frame
Best fitted for the floor.
There it was placed,
Under the seats for schoolchildren. And they
Kicked out his name, and hobnailed off his nose;
And, as they yawn through sermon-time, they say,
"Who was this old stone man beneath our toes?"

The Children and Sir Nameless’ has a kind of humorous irony that would have certainly have appealed to Britten. I am not sure how often this poem appears in Hardy anthologies, yet it is one of my favourites. How strange that ‘Sir Nameless’ ignores the children at his mansion only to be trod under foot by the Sunday school scholars! And of course we must never forget that the poet started out life as an architect –so he knew all about mid-Victorian restorations projects.
Britten mirrors the text in his setting superbly. After a short chordal introduction, Sir Nameless is introduced to the listener: little sympathy is generated for him. Britten indulges in some fine word painting - the loud and high ‘yap’ does suggest that perhaps the youth of the day were rather noisy and outspoken, disturbing the knight’s leisure and study. The key sentiment is that he knows a better way of preserving his fame than by begetting children. The second verse is much quieter and the accompaniment is more Spartan: arpeggios support an almost recitative-like vocal line. In this verse, the key emphasis is on the word ‘statelier’ –it was an effigy worthy of the man. Of course the irony is only fully revealed in the last verse. Musical allusions to the first stanza are combined with a tone suitable to the humour and perhaps, sadness of the final line - "Who was this old stone man beneath our toes?" The world and perhaps more poignantly, the local community had already forgotten this worthy.

If it's ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it's ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I then.

If it's ever summer-time,
With the hay crop at the prime,
And the cuckoos-two-in rhyme,
As they used to be, or seemed to,
We shall do as long we've dreamed to,
If it's ever summer-time,
With the hay, and bees a chime.

The second poem is a love poem, and no doubt looks back to Hardy’s life with Emma. I feel that the key passage here is surely in the second stanza “As they used to be, or seemed to/We shall do as long we've dreamed to, (my italics). Summers are never quite as warm and enjoyable as we try to remember them; usually personal problems intrude on the sunshine.

The accompaniment is much simpler that for ‘Sir Nameless’ yet is entirely appropriate for supporting the reflective vocal line and adds to the sense of loss that is inherent in the poets thoughts. Both verses use similar material. Of course the piano part becomes more involved when the poet is describing his peregrinations in the countryside with his lover. Britten repeats the first two lines of each verse. Interestingly, there is a short epilogue for piano that allows the song to end in a mood of quiet reflection.

There are at least three fine versions of these two songs currently available – I list them in my order of preference.
Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford on Naxos 8557201
Neil Mackie and Roger Vignoles on EMI 74346
Christopher Gould and Daniel Norman on BIS 1510

1 comment:

Can Bass 1 said...

I'm afraid I can never read the words of 'If it's ever Spiring again' without hearing Gerald Finzi. I do not know the Britten setting, but should. I am a great admirer of Winter Words (as great as Winteresse?).