Although Britten had previously set the poetry of Blake in his Serenade, Spring Symphony and A Charm of Lullabies, it was not until 1965 that he decided to compose a fully-fledged Blake cycle for his friend the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had memorably taken part in the first performance of the War Requiem three years earlier. This is Britten’s most uncompromisingly sombre cycle, an impression enhanced by the substantial duration of over twenty minutes, the dark tone-colour of the baritone voice and the fact that it is performed continuously without any breaks. However, the listener that is prepared to enter the work’s intense emotional world will be amply rewarded.
The selection of texts was made by Peter Pears who arranged the sequence so that each Proverb either anticipates the mood of the Song to follow or offers reflection on what we have just heard. The cycle makes some limited use of twelve-note practice (without, however, sounding remotely Schoenbergian), principles which Britten had already used in The Turn of the Screw.
Yet the work is notable for also employing the techniques of free metrical alignment and unmeasured notation introduced in the three Church Parables. Thus the Songs and Proverbs initiates a process of stylistic synthesis that eventually reached its final fulfilment in Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice.