Music for A While
The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation
Anita Krause, mezzo-soprano
John Hess, piano
Three Songs from Ronald Duncan's This Way to the Tomb (1945)
Patricia Green, mezzo-soprano
John Hess, piano
“Music for a While” and “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation”: These two pieces were originally by Henry Purcell and are here arranged by Britten. Purcell provided the bass line and vocal part with figures to indicate harmony. The continuo player is left to realize the rest of the accompaniment, which is just what Britten did. The accompaniments provided by Britten typically remain true to the original harmonies set by Purcell. In “Music for a While,” Britten uses word painting to colour the word “drop.” Here Purcell has indicated a repeated descending figure that Britten colours with sforzando dissonance in the next line, evoking the cracking of the whip. It is obvious from the impressive melodic structure of these works that Britten was very inventive and enjoyed the task of realizing Purcell’s works.
Three Songs from This Way to the Tomb: After his assistance in the creation of Britten’s Peter Grimes libretto, Ronald Duncan approached Britten to compose the music for his play This Way to the Tomb. Although Britten was extremely busy at the time writing Peter Grimes, he agreed to help and composed a trio of songs, Evening, Morning, Night. The trio is written for voice and harp or piano and was first performed on October 11, 1945. The verse-play is a satire on attitudes towards religion. The play tells the story of the Temptation of St Anthony, which was taken seriously in the masque and parodied in the anti-masque. Morning is a relatively straightforward piece that is set in G major. Britten experiments with major and minor mode settings in both Evening and Night, evoking a haunting presence within them.
A Charm of Lullabies: This song cycle was written for Nancy Evans, who shared the part of Lucretia in the original production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. This song cycle is anything but an example of typical lullabies. In the first song, “Cradle Song,” the mother sees all of the challenges and sorrows she faces as an adult in her sleeping child’s face. “The Highland Balou” is set to Robert Burns’ poem and is about the child of a Highland Chief. The music is full of dotted rhythms and loud outbursts that tell us there is no nurturing for the baby in the cradle. It has been suggested that this song was influenced by Britten’s childhood memory of Scottish herring girls singing in Lowestoft. Song three, “A Charm,” is a deeply sad piece. This song tells of a child who is well loved by his father but later becomes the cause of his parents’ separation. The fourth song depicts an angry mother who frightens her baby into sleep. Instead of lulling her baby to sleep softly, the word ‘quiet’ is sung very loud: indeed, the piece is full of very rapid sections that prove to be anything but a lullaby. Finally in the last poem, “The Nurse’s Song,” Britten writes a conventional lullaby at last.
Stephanie O’Leary (‘14)
Phaedra: The final vocal work Britten wrote before his death in 1976 does not look forward so much as it looks back. Originally written for contralto and small orchestra, the cantata follows an eighteenth-century Handelian structure of alternating aria and recitative. Britten and Pears took the text from Robert Lowell’s translation of Phèdre by Jean Racine. Phèdre is an adaptation of the Greek myth of Phaedra who falls in love with her stepson. After the premiere of The Rape of Lucretia, Eric Crozier proposed Racine’s dramatic tragedy as a possible subject for an opera. Britten instead wrote Albert Herring (1947) but returned to the idea almost thirty years after Crozier’s original suggestion. Finding it physically and psychologically impossible to write a full-scale work after his heart surgery, he instead set the myth as a solo cantata. With Phaedra, Britten once again explores themes of forbidden love and an individual at odds with her society.
Britten chronicles the entire saga of Phaedra’s fatal attraction. Through a descending fifth motive, the Prologue illustrates the brilliant Athenian sunshine on Phaedra’s wedding day to Theseus. It is on this day that Phaedra sees and becomes infatuated with her husband’s son Hippolytus. As she realizes the extent of her obsession, Phaedra abandons herself to her passion, only to descend into madness in the third movement. In the final movement, the fifths motive returns as an ascending figure to depict “Medea’s poison” as it courses through her veins, Phaedra’s final attempt to find absolution for her sinful love.
Kiersten van Vliet (’14)