Benjamin Britten, Suite on English Folk Tunes, "A time there was ..."

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2021–22 subscription concert "Symphonic Mozart."

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A prolific composer, conductor, and pianist, Benjamin Britten was one of the most prominent cultural ambassadors in English history. Over four decades, he produced 95 works — from operas and concertos to the massive War Requiem and numerous song cycles composed for the tenor Peter Pears, Britten's life partner and artistic collaborator. Performing and conducting those works himself at concert halls across the globe, Britten became a national treasure at home, a favorite of audiences ranging from schoolchildren to Queen Elizabeth II.

 

Part of Britten's allure was how very English his music was — inspired by England's culture, written to connect with its people.

He was a traditionalist in an age of spiraling modernism, the antithesis of the postwar European avant-garde, who sacrificed late Romanticism's lush harmonies for increasingly dissonant vocabularies. Britten's goal was to make music that was accessible to listeners, with melodies they could whistle on the street. He said in 1963 that:

 

"It is the composer's duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings ... I do not write for posterity ... I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it." 

 

Britten lived most of his life in Aldeburgh, a coastal town on the North Sea that E. M. Forster described as "a bleak little place; not beautiful." Although Britten found comfort and refuge in the remote, storm-shellacked town, its bleakness mirrored his physical and emotional states in late 1974. One year earlier, while undergoing heart surgery to replace a faulty valve, he suffered a mild stroke during the operation that greatly weakened his right arm.

 

Despondent and depressed at his inability to play piano or conduct, Britten found it difficult to focus on composition. But Rita Thomson, Britten's full-time nurse and one of his closest confidantes, made it her mission to lift the composer's spirits and supply him with the materials and quiet he needed to write.

 

It was on an extended stay with Rita at Schloss Wolfsgarten in autumn 1974 that Britten sketched the Suite on English Folk Tunes, "A time there was ...", his final work for orchestra. Although originally conceived as a vehicle for "Hankin Booby," a short dance for wind band Britten had composed in 1966 for the opening of London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, his new suite became an homage to English music itself — a nostalgia-laced look at the popular songs of Britten's youth, suffused with both energy and longing.

 

"Lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger," a composer friend of Britten's who shared an interest in collecting folk songs, the suite is a testament to Britten's economical musical style. In roughly 14 minutes, he develops 10 folk tune snippets in five fleeting movements.

Marked "fast and rough," the opening "Cakes and Ales" pits brassy, militaristic fanfares against relentless rhythms from drums and strings. After a lyrical chorale led by the woodwinds, the military drums return — now off in the distance — while an eerie solo violin skitters up one final scale before the music evaporates.

 

"The Bitter Withy" recalls a ballad based on a medieval poem about Christ's childhood. Lush string lines alternate with scampering figures in the solo harp, the sound of children cheerfully at play. The music slowly grows in intensity, culminating in Mary disciplining the Christ child with three lashings — brilliantly brought to life with rapid glissandos in the harp that end in the raspy snap of the double bass section hitting their strings with the wooden side of the bow.

 

"Hankin Booby" is a Tudor-era dance in triple time, with spiky dotted rhythms from oboes and clarinets punctuated by snareless drums. Trumpets, flutes, and bassoons add to the revelry, replete with quivering trills and swift scalar flourishes.

 

Lasting less than 90 seconds, "Hunt the Squirrel" is a feat of virtuosic fiddling. Divided into four parts, the orchestra’s violins swiftly navigate sudden changes in dynamics, biting accents, and rapid-fire string crossing in its race to the finish line.

 

Dark clouds and icy breezes permeate the closing "Lord Melbourne." The energetic drums and fiddlers of earlier movements have departed, replaced by a solo english horn singing its melancholy tune, marked "always flowing" in the score. Yearning turns to resignation as the soloist's final phrase echoes across the winds and a plush major chord in the strings fades to nothing.

 

The suite’s title, "A time there was . . .", is a nod to the first line of "Before life and after," a Thomas Hardy poem that held great emotional resonance for Britten. In 1953, he had set the poem as the final movement of the Winter Words cycle composed for Pears — a work they performed many times on their international recital tours. To understand its placement on the suite’s title page, more than two decades later, we must turn to perhaps the most moving love letter the couple shared. Shortly after Britten finished sketching the new suite, he wrote to Pears in New York:

"My darling heart … I do love you so terribly, and not only glorious you, but your singing. I’ve just listened to a re-broadcast of Winter Words, and honestly you are the greatest artist that ever was — those great words, so sad and wise … What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for? … I love you, I love you, I love you."

Already swept up in the nostalgia of his new work, and with Pears thousands of miles away for the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Britten's final opera, Death in Venice, hearing Winter Words prompted not only a spectacular confession of love from Britten, but a means to encode that love for Pears in his new work. And having come to terms with his declining health and accepting that the days he had left were far too few, he chose to express that love both nobly and unabashedly.