Britten’s final song cycle A Birthday Hansel (a ‘hansel’ is an old Scottish word for a welcome gift or present) was composed in 1975 and first performed by Peter Pears and Osian Ellis in January 1976 on the occasion of the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday. In recognition of the dedicatee’s Scottish ancestry, Britten selected seven poems by Robert Burns, sung in Scots dialect and performed without a break.
By drawing on the characteristic inflexions of traditional Scottish folk and dance music, Britten conveys an appropriately ‘Celtic’ atmosphere, though the musical material is entirely original. Particularly memorable are ‘Afton Water’ and ‘The Winter’, both of which possess an unaffected directness of expression reminiscent of folksong.
As one might expect, the harp provides much more than simple accompaniment to the voice, employing a wide range of devices and effects to colourful effect as well as providing the necessary transitions from song to song.
Although composed only a year before his death, these settings are as fresh and vivid as anything in Britten’s earlier output. In 1978, Colin Matthews arranged four numbers for voice and piano at the composer’s request, published separately as Four Burns Songs.