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

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album