Monday 12 December 2022

A tricky relationship: the friendship of Benjamin Britten and W H Auden examined in London Song Festival's final event of the season

W H Auden and Benjamin Britten
W H Auden and Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten and W H Auden; Charlotte Bowden, Harry Grigg, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed 9 December 2022

Britten's W H Auden settings placed in a biographical context make for a revelatory evening exploring the important yet tricksy relationship between poet and composer

Benjamin Britten would have a close relationship with the poet WH Auden for around seven years, from 1935 to 1942 and their collaborations include song cycles, film music, an operetta and choral works. Only six years older than Britten, Auden was more self-confident both as an artist and in his sexuality. The last of Nigel Foster's Friends and Lovers season at the London Song Festival focussed on the relationship between Britten and Auden. At Hinde Street Methodist Church on Friday 9 December 2022, Charlotte Bowden (soprano), Harry Grigg (tenor) and Nigel Foster (piano) performed Britten's settings of Auden, including On this Island, the Cabaret Songs, music from Our Hunting Fathers, Ballad of Heroes and Paul Bunyan, and a new version of the soundtrack to the film Night Mail. Interspersed with these, David Mildon read extracts from Britten's letters and diary.

The concert was arranged chronologically from 1936 to the last song, though the songs from On this Island were spread out throughout the whole evening. What was fascinating was hearing the way song and life intertwined, with Britten's comments about the genesis of songs, their reception or other life events that impacted on his art. Perhaps one thing to point out, for the majority of songs we heard during the evening, the words came from poems that Auden had written rather than Auden specifically writing lyrics for Britten. The songs split roughly into two types, the cabaret type ones and the more consciously arty ones. 

Four of Britten's Cabaret Songs survive (they were not written as a set, and more that did not survive seem to be referenced in letters), but other Auden settings partake of the cabaret song atmosphere, having an element of directness to the text. By contrast, many of the more serious songs use Auden poems that are distinctly complex and clever. I will be completely upfront here and admit that some of Britten's Auden settings from this period seem to me to bring out the self-consciously clever element that was prevalent in his music at this time. They are not necessarily works that can be parsed quickly and easily.

We began with Griffin Candey's arrangement of Night Mail, the music Britten wrote for the GPO Film Unit film with the recitation of Auden's words. Hearing the music just on piano, without the instrumental colour, was striking indeed and seemed to bring a greater edge to the modernism of the piece, though it put the voice (Harry Grigg in excellent reciting mode) in greater relief.

We heard just one number from Auden and Britten's curious orchestral song cycle, Our Hunting Fathers, as Charlotte Bowden gave a wonderfully vivid, and very funny, account of Rats Away! (and yes, all about rats).

Underneath the Abject Willow exists in two versions, a duet from 1936 and a solo version from 1941. We heard the latter, sung by Harry Grigg. Auden's words felt a bit too clever, the poem was about Auden trying to bring Britten out sexually, but some of these complexities got rather lost in the song setting, I felt I needed to have a good study of the words. But there was an intriguing cabaret feel to this song too. When you're feeling like expressing your affection was actually a short song written for the GPO Film Unit, and Charlotte Bowden had great fun with it.

On this Island, was written in 1937 and premiered by Britten and Sophie Wyss at the BBC that year. We heard the songs, spread across the evening. Nocturne (sung by Harry Grigg) with its slowly unfolding vocal line over the quietly throbbing/tolling piano seemed to hint at Britten's interest in Purcell. Let the florid music praise was brilliantly sung by Charlotte Bowden, bringing out both the florid and the tender. As is plenty (sung by Harry Grigg) took us slightly into cabaret territory; the original poem is based on a story about a man having an affair with a music hall acrobat, and something of this rather brilliantly threads through Britten's music, though allied to Auden's slightly over clever lyrics. The words for Now the leaves are falling fast are a grim commentary on the state of the world (in 1936), but Britten's music has a compelling quality to it, vividly brought out by Charlotte Bowden. Seascape, sung by Harry Grigg, seemed to have interesting pre-echoes of the later Britten/

The Cabaret Songs are not so much a set as the survivors of a group of songs that Britten wrote with Auden at this period. At least two have their origins in the play The Ascent of F6 which Britten, Auden and Christopher Isherwood collaborated on in 1937. There is a brilliant music-theatre feel to these songs, quite unlike anything the later Britten would write. All four were sung by Charlotte Bowden with just the right combination of wit and musicality. Johnny was delightful in the way the character of the opening verses developed into something more serious. Funeral Blues brought out the serious element in the music, to terrific effect. Tell me the truth about love is of course a gem, and Bowden was on fine form indeed here. Finally, the Calypso in a wonderfully vivid performance.

Night covers up the island from 1937 seems to be related to On this Island. Sung by Harry Grigg it was a melancholic piece that got gradually darker. Another of the songs where Auden's words seemed to require careful study. Fish in the unruffled lakes from 1938 is another song linked to On this Island. Harry Grigg and Nigel Foster brought out the work's musical beauties, but I was left wondering what on earth it was about.

The Ballad of Heroes was a work for tenor, chorus and orchestra written in 1939 to consciously political effect with words by Auden and by Randall Swingler (with whom Alan Bush often worked). Interestingly the original tenor soloist was the fine English Wagnerian tenor, Walter Widdop. Here we heard Nigel Foster's arrangement of the Scherzo, for duet and piano. It was a terrific piece, vividly performed by Bowden and Grigg, with the piano accompaniment having rather a revelatory feel to it with a strong satirical edge highly reminiscent of Shostakovich.

To lie flat on the back from 1937 seems to have been intended for a second set of On this Island. Harry Grigg brought a nice directness to the rather cabaret-ish first verse, with the second turning darker.

Inkslinger's song from Paul Bunyan, the operetta that Auden and Britten wrote in 1941, proved to work very well as a single item with piano. Harry Grigg was strong and direct here, with admirable words and the whole seemed surprisingly complex with some interesting hints of Albert Herring (from 1947). What's in your mind, my dove, my coney from 1941 was another rather direct song, finely sung by Harry Grigg, and again here you felt Britten experimenting with Purcellian style, though the verses describe different aspects of love.

The final song of the evening was The sun shines down on ships at sea, a rather clever piece yet with cabaret hints to it as well, engagingly performed by Bowden and Grigg.

Weaving all these complex elements together was David Mildon who beautifully incarnated Britten's voice, and the way Foster's programme interwove music and text created a fascinating and illuminating whole. For all my strictures, above, about some of Britten's Auden settings, what the evening did was place fine performances of the songs in a context which told the rather complex story of Britten and Auden's tricky relationship.

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