Zum Liederabend am 24. Juni 1965 in Aldeburgh

The Sunday Times, London, Datum unbekannt 

A Schubertiad to remember


A far more rewarding task was undertaken by the great German baritone (Anm.: Fischer-Dieskau) when he introduced, to the composer’s accompaniment and in virtually flawless English, Britten’s "Songs and Proverbs of William Blake." This song-cycle is the most substantial of three new works which Britten is presenting at Aldeburgh this year. It falls into the kind of symmetrical shape that appeals to this most orderly of composers; seven proverbs (brief gnomic utterances set in recitative against stealthily stalking octaves based on a seminal four-note figure) introduce seven lyrics of predominantly black and hostile content. Blake’s cryptic and bitter lines are well matched by the spare, angular, contrapuntal style to which Britten has turned after the textural and harmonic richness of the War Requiem.

A closely argued two-part invention freezing into sudden dismayed consonances conveys the poet’s appalled vision of "London"; "The Chimney-Sweeper" is vividly depicted in a curious combination of perky, jerky rhythm and glassy, high treble harmony; while pianissimo bass octaves, with a fierce little triplet "whisk," give us the fearful symmetry of Blake’s "Tyger." Finer than any of these, at a first hearing, seemed the intensely musical idea of the little "Fly" brushed aside by a careless hand, for here the ironic, yet compassionate, thought of the poet gives rise to an impassioned, melodic line in the voice. In the final song, "Every Night and Every Morn," warm vocal melody seems at last to conquer the uneasy four-note ostinato in the bass, and the music sinks into a perfect F major cadence recalling the War Requiem’s Kyrie in mood as well as in key.


Desmond Shawe-Taylor


     Sunday Telegraph, 27. Juni 1965     


Dark Side of Britten


What of the new "Songs and Proverbs of William Blake" that has dominated a festival superlative even by Aldeburgh’s standards?

Once, Britten might have lit happily on some of the Songs of Innocence ("Sound the Flute" does come in the Spring Symphony); now it is the Songs of Experience, introduced chiefly by Proverbs of Hell, which frame the music. The connection between the proverbs (declaimed in dramatic recitative over thematic piano flourishes) and the poems (formally set as contrasting songs) is sometimes literal but really more of mood; the sense of their emotional kinship – proposition answered by illustration – is unmistakable, really disturbing, and the cause of some of Britten’s most searching music.

At its darkest, the music retains a curiously positive force, however. Instead of revulsion, or the fascination that implies a slight separation, there is a close involvement with the poems’ horrors as part of the world seen in a grain of sand - or in each one of us.

The range and depth of this is grim – in London, faces bearing "marks of weakness, marks of woe"; the chimney-sweeper crying ‘weep ‘weep; the terrifying growth of the poison-tree; the tiger’s murderous rush through the dark; a frail scherzo for the fly; the sunflower’s slow march upwards. Only in the chimney-sweeper is there an echo of the graphic manner of "Winter Words"; and we have come a long way from the bullied little sweep of "Let’s Make an Opera." "The Fly," flickering and vulnerable, is neither imitative nor even a translation of an image into an apt musical device, but something one need not hesitate to call spiritual.

In such a manner, while losing nothing of its ready brilliance and tunefulness – a superbly calm invention in the last song, however chastened by the less confident accompaniment – Britten’s art continues to deepen. For he has, I feel, here come most fully to terms with the darkness and sense of cruelty that has always stalked his art, and refused to allow even faith to intervene as the easy answer. It is true that the cycle’s last words point out that God is never so bright as when darkness smothers. But kinship with darkness must first be accepted.

Simultaneously with this haunting work, in which its composer and its dedicatee Fischer-Dieskau were performers not likely to be matched, have come two other new Britten pieces directly inspired by artistry. […]

John Warrack


     The Observer Weekend, 27. Juni 1965     


Greatness gathers at Aldeburgh


Britten and Blake


The new "Songs and Proverbs of William Blake" is a work of a very different order – conceivably the finest cycle that Britten has yet given us. All the songs, each of which is prefaced by a proverb, turn on the hatefulness of a manmade world when measured against the miracles of God’s creation. It is a work that holds in one hand "endless night" and in the other "sweet delight," and as such it embraces both the light and the dark sides of Britten’s complex musical personality. But, here at any rate, no vision of God’s grace allows us to escape the fact that the worm in the rose is man himself. It is not a comfortable piece, but its stature lies in its very refusal to accept easy consolation.

This bleakness is well matched to a musical idiom harmonically more sparse and austere than that of any of Britten’s earlier cycles. There is little underlining or mere illustration of words. The accompaniments are mainly fashioned out of phrases and scraps of material, and woven in a way that is at once responsive to detail yet able to give each song a strong feeling of cohesion and shape. Similarly, the vocal line rarely rests on a comfortable melodic gesture but ranges freely over an immense range of emotion.

The particular challenge of Blake lies, of course, in a style that is at once devastatingly simple yet charged with emotion. On the whole Britten meets it successfully. "The Fly" captures a truly Blake-like naivety, and so does the gentle up and down motion of the vocal line at the opening of "Every night and every morn." Yet it is perhaps the black songs that finally leave the strongest impression, and particularly "I was angry with my friend," which Britten builds up with compact counterpoint to a terrible paean of hatred. Sung by Fischer-Dieskau and played by the composer its impact was overwhelming.


Peter Heyworth

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