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

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