An Advanced Poetry Lesson from Benjamin Britten

United StatesUnited States Britten: Philip Myers (horn), Kate Royal (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo soprano), Dominic Armstrong (tenor), Michael Slattery (tenor), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (director), Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun-Menaker (director), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. 21.11.2013 (DS)

Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Britten: Spring Symphony


While an American college liberal arts education is enriching, it always seems to leave regrets; what about all the intriguing subjects—all the classes—one didn’t get a chance to take within the allotted four-year period? Well, it turns out Benjamin Britten offers us his own continuing education tutelage—that is, if one of those things you missed happened to be great British poets. At the recent New York Philharmonic celebration of Britten’s 100th birthday, Alan Gilbert offered a crash course on some incomprehensible old English verse, the classically overeducated Ben Johnson, the darkly Romantic William Blake and the sensually melancholic John Keats, among many others.

The two works that led us on this literary journey through Albion were the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the Spring Symphony. Both compositions compile several short songs based each on separate poems. The Serenade delved into pastoral themes with such texts as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Blow Bugle Blow” and Johnson’s “Hymn to Diana.” The horn, played by Philharmonic principal Philip Myers, is a natural one, which emits what sound like “wrong” notes. This is purposeful. Britten’s placement of horn solos at the beginning and end seem to interpret the pastoral not only as an idyllic place (Tennyson’s words uplift with the words “Our echoes roll from soul to soul / And grow for ever and ever”) but one with powerful imperfections, more often sorrowful than life-affirming. After all, tenor Michael Slattery sings with smoothly agonized expression about the lost innocence of a crimson rose (attacked by a nocturnal worm…ahem) in Blake’s “The Sick Rose” and ends his part of the Serenade, mournfully repeating Keat’s reflection that nature’s sleep is only a path to death, sealing “the hushed Casket of my Soul.”

Spring Symphony, like its name, explored the rejuvenating season of blossoms and ran through thirteen different poets, ranging from John Milton to Britten’s own friend W.H. Auden. Compared to the Serenade, this work is on a much grander scale, including full chorus, children’s choir, full orchestra and three solo singers. Poetry works both quietly and loudly, Britten demonstrates, for sometimes the fewest words relay the most profound thoughts. But it’s not all serious brooding, of course. In Edmund Spenser’s “The Merry Cuckoo,” the soloists chimed in a memorable refrain of syncopated “cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo,” bringing out both the cuteness and the brazen boldness of the bird’s infamous call.  

As listeners, we are let in on intimate secrets. How an individual reads or reacts to poetry is a deeply personal experience, and Britten openly, almost vulnerably, shares his emotions through the musical interpretation of such texts. And the great success of the choir, the soloists, and orchestra with Gilbert at the helm was in the care with which they approached each song with a golden touch, unhindered yet respectful.

The excitement was only elevated by Gilbert’s announcement at the start that tenor Dominic Armstrong would be taking the last-minute place of Paul Appleby, who’d fallen ill. As it turned out, Mr. Armstrong had never performed the Spring Symphony before and was practically sight-reading his part. Whether to Britten’s credit or to Armstrong’s (or, perhaps, to a steadfast high school study of iambic pentameter), the two made an extraordinary and vibrant pair. Now that’s poetry.

Daniele Sahr

Leave a Comment