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Howard Series
Celebrating Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Charles Reid, Tenor; Julie Reid, Mezzo Soprano; Trina Thompson, piano
February 17, 2013

 Purcell: Three Songs as realized by Benjamin BrittenBritten: Canticle I, op.40 "My Beloved is Mine and I am His"Britten: Canticle II op.51 "Abraham and Isaac" "Britten: Winter Words, op.52 - on poems of Thomas HardyBritten: Folksong arrangements

During this year of the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth on Saint Cecilia’s Day, 1913, this concert joins countless other celebrations around the globe with the music for which he is most renowned–music for the voice. Not surprising for a composer with such a poetic temperament and deep love of literature, vocal compositions dominate his output. An outstanding pianist and conductor, together with his lifelong association with one of Britain’s finest tenors, Peter Pears, Britten brought a more than personal perspective to his composition for the voice. Indeed he wrote most of the works for voice and piano to perform with Pears. While others at this point in the 20th century were exploring new tonal systems, Britten stayed firm in applying his inventiveness within the traditional tonal system. This concert features four types of compositions for voice and piano, his “realizations” of songs by Britten’s great 17th century predecessor, Henry Purcell, two Canticles on religious texts, a song cycle on the poetry of the great English writer, Thomas Hardy, and a selection of Britten’s inimitable settings of folksongs.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Three Songs as realized by Benjamin Britten

We Sing to Him
Sound the Trumpet
Evening Hymn

Considering Purcell to be England’s greatest composer, Britten’s interest in the works of that composer blossomed in 1945, the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. Most of Purcell’s music was written for the church, the court, the theatre, or the home. Today, most audiences have experienced the Purcell/Britten connection through The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, variations on a theme from Purcell’s stage work, Abdelazar. The three Purcell/Britten selections on this concert come from music for the court and for domestic worship in the home. While today, his “realizations” might not find favor with audiences accustomed to “authentic” renditions of music of the Baroque, Britten’s colorful, inventive versions certainly served to bring wider recognition to Purcell’s music through these arrangements and performances with Peter Pears at that time. Britten wrote that his editions were performing editions “for contemporary conditions.” He realized the figured bass in his own manner, respecting the harmonies, but without hesitating to add elaborate figuration and counter melodies to the texture.

We sing to Him and Evening Hymn were originally published in Harmonia Sacra, a late 17th century collection of devotional music written by various composers. Britten included these two arrangements in his collection Three Divine Hymns published in 1947. In We sing to Him Purcell’s magnificent text painting in the vocal line is complemented by Britten’s full bodied elaborations of the harmonies of the first section while a counter melody added in the second part contributes to the dance. The joyful duet Sound the Trumpet comes from the ode Come Ye Sons of Art, Away composed for Queen Mary II’s birthday in 1694. To enhance the celebratory mood established by Purcell, Britten has added elaborate ornamentation and florid counter-melodies. The serene Evening Hymn, a popular song even in Purcell’s day, places the increasingly ecstatic vocal line over one of Purcell and Britten’s favorite devices, a ground bass.

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Canticle I, op.40 "My Beloved is Mine and I am His"
Canticle II op.51 "Abraham and Isaac"

While Britten is not known for his church music per se, from his childhood he had a connection with the music of the church. This association is certainly reflected in much of his music–use of hymn tunes, choral compositions that flourish in the live acoustics of English churches, liturgical texts, scripture, plainsong, and to some extent, liturgical forms. While canticles are typically considered a liturgical hymn text employed in church services, Britten took a new approach to the term as he applied it to religious or quasi-religious texts. Over a period of years he created five Canticles–extended songs for solo voice or voices with piano in a semi-dramatic context, each like a mini-cantata, rich in musical detail and emotional substance. Each text contains devotional elements which Britten skillfully reflects.

The 17th century metaphysical poet, Francis Quarles set an ecstatic elaboration of “My Beloved is Mine” from the Song of Solomon. It is this text that Britten employed for his Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine. The first section, Andante alla barcarola, with its use of a water motive is reminiscent of Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen. One stream is heard flowing unruffled in 6/8 in the left hand of the piano, the other is in the right hand. The two streams portray images of the courting lovers–Christ drawing the human soul to Him. Following a declamatory recitative, the Presto (Nor Time, nor Place) section suggests a 3-part canon displaying an element of continuing pursuit, but more of a weathering the storm, as the singer makes his way through complex counterpoint to the final Lento, intimate musings on the relationship with divine grace. The vocal line arches like a rainbow supported by luxuriant chords.

The text of Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac is taken from one of the medieval Chester Miracle plays. A masterful fusion of play, cantata and opera scena, two singers are employed to recount the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in a most moving way. Their voices are blended to portray the voice of God, each, representing Abraham and Isaac, are given solo arias and recitatives, as well as touching duets, one of farewell and one the final joyous Envoi celebrating the reprieve. All the while the piano provides meaningful commentary. The composer used a portion of this piece in his War Requiem where the poet rewrites the story, Abraham does not obey God to drop the knife and “half the seed of Europe” are sacrificed. Britten dedicated the Canticle to contralto Kathleen Ferrier who played the part of Isaac in the first performance with Pears and Britten.

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1967)
Winter Words, op.52-on poems of Thomas Hardy

1. At Day-close in November
2. Midnight on the Great Western
3. Wagtail and Baby
4. The Little Old Table
5. The Choirmaster's Burial
6. Proud Songsters
7. At the Railway Station, Upway
8. Before Life and After

One of the finest of song cycles, Winter Words: Lyrics and Ballads of Thomas Hardy, Op. 52, stands as a centerpiece of Britten’s vocal oeuvre. The title of this eight-song cycle and one of the poems are taken from the renowned English poet and novelist’s last collection of poetry, Winter Words, a collection that was published shortly after his death in 1928. Britten’s choice and settings of the Hardy poems focus on themes of loss of innocence through the birth of consciousness, stressing contrast between, but also subtle alliance of youth and age. While the opening and closing songs are philosophically and lyrically reflective, the interior six pieces are “ballads”, narrative vignettes, setting scenes and telling tales of growing old, becoming aware, life, death.

At day-close in November evokes autumnal nostalgia bursting with a windswept November landscape, calming as the old poet remembers planting the trees and then realizes that the children can’t remember when the trees were not there. The second and seventh songs tell tales dealing with train travel. The piano recalls the train’s whistle and the movement of the engine as the boy in Midnight on the Great Western hurtles on through the night to the unknown. In At the Railway Station, Upway the young boy with a fiddle tries to cheer the convict who is being taken to an unknown destination. We are taken to visit the natural world in songs three and six. A baby is watching the little drama of the long tailed Wagtail whose fluttering and drinking continues unperturbed through the appearance of various animals. Only when the human shows up is the bird frightened away. In the only poem to be taken from Hardy’s Winter Words collection, Proud Songsters, poetry and music depict the sheer joy of the birds who innocently live only in the present. The two central narratives of the cycle hone in on memories of old men. The sound of the creak of the table (The Little Old Table) heard in the piano establishes the present, recalls the giver of the table in the past, and portrays the realization that future owners will never know the table’s past. The circumstances of the most complex story, The Choirmaster’s Burial, is drawn from Hardy’s own family–his grandfather and father were both string players in the village church band (the narrator ‘tenor man’ is a tenor viol player). The hymn tune ‘Mount Ephraim’ is heard undergirding the narrative of the choirmaster’s oft-repeated request that this, his favorite hymn, be played by the band at his burial. The vicar can’t be bothered to have music at the service–it would take too much time. His impatience and the burial “without any tune” is reflected in the abrupt piano part. When miraculously, celestial musicians appear to play the choirmaster to his final rest, the tune reappears in gentle triplets. Before Life and After, a study in simplicity, repeated left hand chords with bare octaves above support the singer in portraying this final declaration of the conflict between innocence and experience.

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Folksong arrangements

Little Sir William
'Tis the last rose of summer
Sally, in our alley
O waly, waly
Sweet Polly Oliver

It was during self exile in America in the 1940s, Britten having fled Britain’s entrance into the war, that he began to make folk song arrangements. Ever practical, the composer needed more “popular” material for his numerous concerts with Peter Pears, and working with the folk material enabled him to connect with his English roots as he grew ever more homesick. Folksong had been the foundation of the English pastoral style that Britten had rejected. Instead of following that path with folksong, he followed the lead of Percy Grainger, transforming the material in his own way into the realm of art song. As Peter Pears stated: “Benjamin Britten sought to take the tune of a folk melody as if he had written it and think himself back as to how he might turn it into a song.” Over the course of the years 1943 to 1976 he published eight volumes of folksong arrangements: six for voice and piano, and one each with guitar and harp. From these collections we hear a selection of five from various volumes.

In Little Sir William (v. 1, 1943), a macabre tale of a little boy-martyr, the music begins with the boisterousness of schoolboys on Easter holiday, but is suddenly arrested when the boy’s ghost speaks. The ever popular The Last Rose of Summer (v. 4, 1957, Irish melodies) a nostalgic poem by Irish poet Thomas Moore, speaks of the autumn of the year and autumn of life accompanied by arpeggiated harp-like chords. Introduced by flights of fancy in the piano, the tale of hope and love of two poor Londoners is told in the ballad Sally, in our Alley (v. 5, 1961). The familiar lament of a jilted lover O Waly, Waly (v. 3, 1947, also arranged for high voice and strings) is set simply accompanied by rich three-note chord sequences. The lively setting of the narrative Sweet Polly Oliver, tells the story of the determined Polly who dresses as a man to nurse her lover back to health. It is filled with wonderful canonic interplay between voice and piano as well as tone painting featuring the marching feet of the soldiers, the voice of the sergeant, and all-in all, tells of a happy ending to the story.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2013.
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