Vocal music stands at the heart of Britten’s output and his song cycles, whether for voice and piano, harp or guitar, form a substantial and important part of his body of work.
From an early age, Britten had shown a natural aptitude for writing for the human voice: the youthful collections later published under the titles Beware! and Tit for Tat demonstrate a remarkable technical assurance and an impressively advanced and sensitive approach to word-setting, qualities which also characterize Britten’s earliest mature cycles, Our Hunting Fathers and On this Island, both products of his association with the poet WH Auden.
However, it was when his personal and artistic partnership with Peter Pears began in the late-1930s that Britten’s song-writing blossomed as he sought to provide a repertoire for the two of them to perform in their recital programmes, resulting in such works as Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Canticle I, Winter Words and Who are these children?. However, Britten was also inspired to write for other artists and performers including mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans (A Charm of Lullabies), Galina Vishnevskaya (The Poet’s Echo) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Songs and Proverbs of William Blake).
Britten’s chosen texts reflect his wide-ranging tastes, from Donne and Michelangelo to more modern poets such as TS Eliot and Edith Sitwell while his ever-popular folksong arrangements, with their unique mixture of the earthy and the sophisticated, reveal his debt to his English heritage. In addition, since his death in 1976, many of Britten’s previously unknown songs and arrangements have come to light.
Audio: 'Before life and after' from Winter Words, op. 52 performed by Peter Pears (tenor) and Benjamin Britten (piano). Courtesy of Decca Classics and Boosey & Hawkes.