On Britten's Cabaret Songs
12 October 2009 at 10.56am | Comment on this article
Benjamin Britten had a fractious relationship with the poet W.H. Auden. Bold both in his political leanings and his private life, Auden was a thorn in the side of the shy young middle-class composer. However, the two created exciting and diverse work together, including their jocular 1930s Cabaret Songs.
These four songs were written over a two-year period for the English singer Hedli Anderson, who later became the wife of the Louis MacNeice. She first knew Auden and Britten through their mutual association with the experimental theatrical company The Group Theatre. Auden was well at home in the left wing wrangling of this diverse group; Britten less so. Yet the troupe’s turnover challenged Britten’s skills, as he had to turn out songs and incidental music in quick succession. Although the plays for which some of these songs were written have since faded with theatrical fashion, the numbers themselves remain evergreen; Anderson performed them throughout her career. Britten wrote in his diary that they ‘are going to be hits, I feel!’
Auden, inspired by the Berlin cabaret nightlife he enjoyed in the 1930s, confected pithy and humorous verses, though the sentiment is real enough. Taking his lead from Auden, Britten plunders the style of those ditties (via the American songbook). Jazzy inflections and lazy syncopation are in marked contrast to his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge or the Piano Concerto, written at that time. In ‘Funeral Blues’, however, the camp of the other songs comes grinding to a halt. Britten’s embittered dirge forewarns of the dark world of World War II and Peter Grimes rather than the bravura of Berlin. Troubled times were set for Britten and Auden’s generation.
On 13 and 15 October, the Jette Parker Young Artists will be performing Britten’s Cabaret Songs as part of a triple bill that also features Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and the world premiere ofYoung Artist Steven Ebel’s Diary of a Young Poet, based on Rilke’s diaries and poems.