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Only four artists (the instrumentalists and conductor) in this recording are over the age of eighteen. Such is Britten’s greatness, and uniqueness, that he effectively created a genre in which the meaning of his vocal writing – every bit as involving as Schubert or Wolf – depends on young people’s involvement to make as profound an impact.
I remember singing Old Abram Brown as a boy, marvelling at the way in which such a simple tune could carry such great significance. The compositional devices were as obvious to me as a child as they are to the boys I have the privilege to conduct – canon in two parts, separated by two bars; then in four, separated by single bars; leading to a climax in which the augmented melody is pitted against the original; then disappearing in pathetic fragments, on a monotone… but it was the sense of what I was singing being given a universal dimension by a force outside myself – Britten’s incredibly imaginative yet concise piano accompaniment – that transformed the logic of the vocal writing into something so powerful and earth- shattering.
Whether it be the forces of fate, the individual against society or, even more mundanely, the workings of harmony simultaneously in union with and contradicting melody, these are important strands running through Britten’s works – and they start with his compositions for children.
Of course, the insights that flow from a state of primitive or child-like wonder did not start with Britten (the Victorian writer Charles Lamb’s appraisal of the acting of Munden – “He stands wondering, amid the common-place materials of life, like primæval man with the sun and stars about him”- is a beautiful parallel); yet Britten’s music is the first to express it with honesty and, perhaps, naivety. A CD booklet is not the forum to engage in debate as to the background to this – suffice it to say that, of all the composers the boys at Tiffin encounter – and, for the most part, the boys have little previous musical experience – Britten seems to have a kind of “hot-line” to what makes them tick.
Perhaps it is the love of challenges. Perhaps great poetry. Perhaps a desire to explore real depths in music and life. I don’t know. But I do remember the first time I prepared the boys to sing the War Requiem, some twenty years ago: having worried about how the boys would take to learning a near 12-note-row, inversions, retrogrades and the like, I took the first rehearsal before school as normal; later the same day, around the playground at lunchtime,
I heard boys whistling the piece. Schoenberg famously claimed “one day, milkmen will whistle my tunes like Puccini’s”; with Britten’s music, his time has surely come.
|1||06:38||There was a ship come from the north country|
|2||03:28||The up spake the cabin boy|
|3||05:02||Casting his clthes off, he dived into the sea|
|4||03:17||They laid him on the deck|
|5||09:26||The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard|
|6||00:57||Begone, dull care|
|7||01:36||A tragic story|
|10||02:12||A New Year carol|
|11||01:07||I mun be married on Sunday|
|12||00:30||There was a man of Newington|
|14||02:30||The useful plough|
|16||01:24||There was a monkey|
|17||03:58||Old Abram Brown|
|20||02:28||There is no Rose|
|21||01:48||That yongë child|
|23||01:02||As dew in Aprille|
|24||01:29||This little Babe|
|26||03:37||In freezing winter night|