Britten greatly enjoyed the challenge of setting texts in languages other than English and had been contemplating a cycle using Russian texts for some time. The Poet’s Echo, six settings of Pushkin, was composed in 1965 while Britten was resident at the Composers’ Union in Armenia and was first performed by the dedicatees, the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatoire in December of that year.
The theme of the work is reflected in the title: no matter how much the artist may strive to convey his message, it is his destiny to receive no response from an uncomprehending world. Thus in the first song, the soprano’s opening lines are ‘echoed’ by the piano in close canonic entries which trail away into nothing each time.
The second song, My heart, revisits a familiar Britten theme, the passionate yearnings aroused by beauty, while in the third, the confrontation between Satan and the Angel is represented by the stealthy rise and fall of the piano’s ‘demonic’ octaves and the ‘angelic’ blurred triads (inevitably recalling Midnight on the Great Western from Winter Words).
The final song, Lines written during a sleepless night, returns to the cycle’s central theme with the pianos’ tick-tocking ostinato heard in varying contexts before reaching an uneasy conclusion. Vishnevskaya later recalled how, at the first run-through of this song at the Pushkin House Museum, the clock struck midnight in exact synchronisation with the music, an event that sent the assembled company dispersing to bed in stunned silence.