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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Selected Folksongs (various dates)
Down by the Salley Gardens
Little Sir William
O Waly, Waly
At the age of fourteen, Britten fell in love with the music of Frank Bridge, and after arranging a meeting with the composer, he was lucky enough to begin composition lessons with him. This was an important milestone for both composers – Bridge, as a rule, did not take on pupils, while for Britten the lessons signalled a new stage in his compositional development and the beginning of a prodigious outpouring of compositions for new ensembles. It was Bridge that put Britten in touch with his more modernist side, introducing him to the likes of Berg and Schoenberg and encouraging him to be more experimental in his output. Unlike most English composers around him, the young Britten was active in his desire to forge a new path for English music. He made no secret of the fact that he found much recent English music rather boring, and focussed much of his attention instead on the eclectic works of composers such as Stravinsky, whose ballet, The Rite of Spring, he called ‘the World’s Wonder’.
Britten found the nationalist music of other English composers such as Vaughan Williams, whose works drew heavily upon the rich heritage of Engligh folksong, uninspiring and redundant. Writing to Grace Williams in 1935 Britten wrote disparagingly about Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs: ‘That “pi” and artificial mysticism combined with, what seems to me, technical incompetence, sends me crazy.’ Despite these disapproving marks, and although he never considered himself part of the same English folksong tradition, Britten had his own success with many folk song arrangements over the course of his career. In 1936, he wrote in his diary about his music for a documentary entitled The Village Harvest: ‘All arrangements of folk & traditional tunes (some from Moeran)—all lovely stuff and I must admit my scoring comes off like hell.’ One of his earliest folk song arrangements, The Plough Boy (1936), was part of the score for this film, the high whistle of the boy going about his duties captured by the piano in the opening. Down by the Salley Gardens (1943) is among his best-loved songs, and is a setting of W.B. Yeats’ poem of the same name, which tells a story of love gone wrong: ‘She said to take love easy as the leaves grew on the tree, but I was young and foolish and with my darling could not agree.’ O Waly Waly (1948) has a similarly message, melancholically lamenting the demise of love over time, a sad predicament that Britten evokes through the unceasing ebb and flow of wave-like movement in the piano accompaniment. Along with the Salley Gardens, both Little Sir William (1941) and Oliver Cromwell (1941) were among four folksong arrangements which Britten said produced a ‘wow’ every time they were performed. Often used as encore pieces while Britten and Pears gave concerts in America, they both contrast their lively, youthful melodies with an underlying sense of sadness.
© Jo Kirkbride