Britten: Les Illuminations, Opus 18
Benjamin Edward Britten
BORN: November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England
DIED: December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, Suffolk
COMPOSED: Begun March 1939 in Suffolk, completed October 1939 in Amityville, Long Island
WORLD PREMIERE: The movements “Being Beauteous” and “Marine” were introduced on August 17, 1939, at the London Proms at Queen’s Hall, by soprano Sophie Wyss with Sir Henry Wood conducting; Wyss was also the soloist when the complete song cycle was premiered on January 30, 1940, at Aeolian Hall, London, with the Boyd Neel Orchestra.
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—March 2003. Soprano Jessica Jones was soloist with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting
INSTRUMENTATION: String orchestra with solo high voice (soprano or tenor—here the former)
DURATION: About 21 mins
THE BACKSTORY Though Benjamin Britten was an instrumentalist, having been trained as a string player and excelling especially as a pianist, singers flocked around him throughout his career. Britten often wrote vocal works with specific singers in mind; over the years, an identifiable “Britten circle” of singers dependably premiered and championed his works. Among these, the tenor Peter Pears was Britten’s chief partner (both artistic and spousal), but other singer-collaborators were also important. The earliest of these was the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, who premiered such entries in the Britten catalogue as Our Hunting Fathers (1936) and On This Island (1937), and was also the inspiration for his arrangements of French folksongs (1942) and for the orchestral song cycle on this program, Les Illuminations (1939).
Not many English composers had previously shown an interest in setting languages other than their own (Delius being a rare exception), and Britten took some fire from British critics who felt that setting French texts was at least suspicious and perhaps even unpatriotic. In fact, Les Illuminations was not Britten’s first foray into French; just after graduating from high school, he had composed an orchestral song cycle on French texts by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine (the Quatre chansons françaises, 1928). In 1938 Britten’s friend W.H. Auden suggested that he take a look at the phantasmagorical poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91), Verlaine’s one-time lover (though their affair had ended badly, in an attempted murder for which Verlaine spent two years in jail). Britten had recently been struggling with the challenges of setting English texts in the cycle On this Island (to texts by Auden), and he was a ready candidate to try text-settings in foreign languages—at first French, then Italian (in his Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo)— before returning to his native language to perfect his distinctive style.
In a 1940 program note, Britten wrote:
[Rimbaud’s] short life as a poet was an erratic and turbulent one, generally near starvation and often homeless, sometimes with his friend Verlaine, sometimes alone, and much of it was set in the most sordid surroundings, in Paris, Brussels, and London; but throughout it, the boy’s inspiration remained radiant and intense. The word ‘Illuminations’ suggests both the vision of a mystic and a brightly coloured picture …. The composer has taken seven of these poems, six in prose and one in verse, and has made them into a cycle.
These were cryptic poems, admittedly perplexing in their odd combinations of thoughts. Britten embarked on voice-and-orchestra settings of two of Rimbaud’s poems, “Being Beauteous” (with a text in French, despite Rimbaud’s deceptive English title) and “Marine.” Britten did not hear Sophie Wyss premiere them, in 1939 in London, as he was then living at a freewheeling artists commune in New York City. While in America he continued with his Rimbaud settings, eventually crafting a nine-movement cycle.
THE MUSIC Given the obscurity of some of the poems, Britten was probably wise to approach the text-setting as an exercise in finding musical equivalents to specific words or phrases. The line “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone hold the key to this savage parade”) stands as a recurrent motif: the soloist declaims it first in the opening fanfare movement (boldly), and reprises it during the interlude between “Marine” and “Being Beauteous” (sounding rather bewildered) and again at the end of the penultimate song, “Parade” (at last infusing it with triumphant confidence). At its first airing the phrase is accompanied by a bitonal accompaniment that sets up the conflicting keys of B-flat major and E major (residing a tritone apart, the farthest possible harmonic distance from each other) as pivotal mechanisms of the cycle’s harmonic structure.
Britten’s cycle ranges through various shades of vigor and mystery. A mixture of forcefulness and introversion is declared in “Fanfare,” after which “Villes” (Cities) bustles in what the composer called “a very good impression of the chaotic modern city life.” All of the movements, by the way, follow each other rapidly, the score advising that “pauses between movements should be as short as possible.”
“Phrase” serves as a dreamy interlude that effects a transition to “Antique,” a simple but seductive dance (with carefree violin obbligato) that Britten dedicated “To K.H.W.S.,” that being Wolfgang (Wulff) Scherchen, the son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen. Britten was quite smitten with Wulff but unequal expectations of their friendship may have been one reason Britten took off for the United States. In any case, the text of “Antique” stands pretty far out of the closet. Two further love songs follow: the somewhat Stravinskyian “Royauté” (Royalty) and the dramatic “Marine.”
The sinuous, mostly instrumental “Interlude” ends with the recurrent phrase “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage,” which the composer told Sophie Wyss was “a reproof for the exaggeratedly ecstatic mood of ‘Marine.’” This leads to “Being Beauteous,” again laden with overtly erotic imagery; “P.N.L.P” (Peter Neville Luard Pears) must have appreciated the dedication.
The music of “Parade” originated in an early string quartet, specifically in a movement titled “Go play, boy, play” that presumably was meant to depict the sportive interactions of Britten’s schoolmates. There remains is the ravishing finale, “Départ” (Departure), in which the singer’s music paces off slowly in a spirit of wistful but inevitable leave-taking.
Special mention should be made of the string writing in this piece. Britten had already proved his mastery of string orchestra writing in his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937; Bridge had been his teacher and mentor). The composer’s knack for brilliant orchestration gets a thorough workout as he uncovers more sounds than one might imagine possible from an all-string ensemble. He achieves unanticipated sonic variety through such techniques as dividing his sections into several parts, calling on solo instruments to emerge from the larger texture, employing such timbral effects as sul ponticello (playing near the bridge to achieve a tight, nasal sound), and inviting the strings to imitate other instruments, as in the brassy opening “Fanfare.” —James M. Keller
Les Illuminations-Text and Translation by Julia Bullock