A 20th-century folk hero

The songsmith may be dead but the singing never ends. By Nicholas Williams

If you can recall your whereabouts 19 years ago, on 4 December precisely, you're probably a Britten lover, and maybe a singer. Musicians remember that date with the kind of nostalgia that attends the names of John Lennon and Kennedy. But for singers, it was a moment of especially profound disillusion.

The pianist Graham Johnson has written that, with the news of Benjamin Britten's death that mild winter's day in 1976, we lost the composer "who would have been most likely to find a means of maintaining the writing of English songs with piano as a living art". The simple fact that, had he survived, he'd now have been a mere 81, and still composing, drives home the point.

In reality, a seemingly inexhaustible flow of new-old works and re-mastered early recordings has kept his memory green. And though these have been ersatz premieres to fill the aching void left by those great works that never came to pass, fond memories of those real premieres that are now legendary - the "tingle factor" of a wartime recording of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo heard for the first time, or a BBC radio score recovered from the vaults some 60 years on - cannot be denied.

And from Collins Classics comes a further timely helping of undiscovered Britten in the form of a three-CD collection of the complete folk-songs, with 10 previously unknown numbers sung by Philip Langridge and Felicity Lott, and 14 orchestral versions of folk-songs dating from the 1940s and 1950s. Set against the background of the Wigmore Hall's forthcoming season of Britten songs that promises the complete cycles, the canticles, and further remnants from the bottom drawer, this latest issue is a potent reminder not only of our uniquely enduring fascination with Britten's art, but also of the particular store he set by these neglected arrangements and their relation to the songs in general.

Intended as recital material for Peter Pears (with Britten at the piano), they're anything but crumbs from the rich man's table, and as a complete oeuvre they have their own striking vitality. Deft orchestral versions of classics such as "Oliver Cromwell", "Little Sir William" and "O Waly, Waly" cast new light on the colours of the original versions. Hidden traits are revealed in Britten's enduring fascination with "The Bitter Withy", which appears not only in the late orchestral Suite on English Folk Tunes, but also in an incomplete version for boys' choir from 1962. There's even a chance to hear one of Britten's least known works: his settings of Moore's Irish Melodies collected as Volume 4 of the folk-song arrangements.

And individually, even the least impressive of these songs reminds us of his special way with folk-song. Two protagonists are always present: the tune itself, and the composer, whose accompaniments soothe, heckle or contradict the melody with all the rhythmic and harmonic skills of a mid-century tonal master. This was the rub for the folk-song purists. Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams, like the Russian editors such as Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov before them, believed in "invisible" piano parts that graciously clothed the original in harmonious mode and rhythm. By contrast, both in these folk-songs and in his 1948 arrangement of The Beggar's Opera, Britten followed Percy Grainger's example and added his own personality to the tunes - tunes that he loved, in Donald Mitchell's words, "as if he had composed them himself".

And so he did; no less so than Tippett, another folk-song enthusiast who stands far back from the pastoral ideal. Yet Britten's kind of loving had this special quality of secondary possession that is also a feature of his vocal work as a whole. Accomplished songwriters before him - Stanford, Gurney, Quilter - set words to music; but Britten took possession of the words through music as if they were his own. Nobody hearing Parry's Shakespeare settings is likely to think differently of Shakespeare. Yet hearing Britten's Hardy, Donne or Eliot changes unalterably your perception of English poetry, leaves you gripped by another realm of poetic truth beyond the purely literary.

How a composer came to have this gift, and whether it could be repeated, are further and related questions. The same skill to write "many different kinds of music" that Britten saw as the key to his operatic success is clearly important for the songs too. By accident of time and place, his style was richly heterodox, making it an instrument of wide-ranging response to the chosen words. And loving was equally important here, for he surely "loved" the music of Schubert, Mahler, Purcell and others, as if he'd composed it himself - though in reality he couldn't. And so the subtle parodies of traditional genre styles, the lean orchestration, the naive- sophisticate common chords and the peerless tone painting are a kind of wish fulfilment, a substitute act that led to a new style altogether.

As for the words, language itself made him a gift of its unity which a modern composer can only envy. Again, by accident of time and place, Britten could explore the highways and byways of English literature in the vast anthology of his vocal works and still keep faith with his audience. His Auden settings seem the test case here. How many composers today could hope to explore the work of contemporary poets with such eagerness and understanding? And where, for that matter, are the rising poets who speak to the general reader, and young composers, with such synoptic radicalism as that of Auden?

In truth, the world has changed, along with the status of composer, reader and poet. And this he might have guessed. Graham Johnson, who features largely on the Collins discs, says that in the time he knew him, the last seven years of his life, Britten himself sometimes felt that the age of song-writing was over. Young Brittens today are more likely to be budding sequencers than pianists, more likely to be exploring rap than The Golden Treasury. Heard this way, the folk-songs, handmade artefacts for amateurs to sing and play, are late attempts to revive the common tradition that now takes its place as but one element within a common plurality.

Or maybe not. For despite our assumptions, we are ignorant of the long perspective in which these works will be placed 20, 50 or 100 years from now. All we know for certain is their quality of perfection, which with all our relative values, is still the hallmark of a classic. After all, even Johnson's living art of English song, moribund of late, may one day revive in unexpected form. Until then, let's be thankful for what we already have, singers and listeners alike.

n 'The Britten Song Festival' at The Wigmore Hall 14 Sept - 24 January (0171-935 2141)

n Collins Classics' 3-CD set, 'Benjamin Britten: The Folk Songs' is released in October

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice