Of all musical collaborations involving the piano, the art song is one of my favorites. The combination of “tunes and words” is arresting for me; and Benjamin Britten‘s Folksong Arrangements have kept me in captive bliss for several decades! I recently came across some of Britten’s observations on folk songs from his native land: “The chief attractions of English folksongs are the sweetness of the melodies, the close connection between words and music, and the quiet, uneventful charm of the atmosphere…. Like much of the English countryside, they creep into the affections rather than take them by storm.”
Today’s program illustrates the collaborative roles of the voice (or instrument in the case of the Vaughan Williams) and the piano in the art song. In Vaughan Williams’s musings on the folk song, you will experience the overall atmosphere the composer creates with both the clarinet and piano. Note how the piano writing weaves around the song tunes in the clarinet, at times filling them out with harmony; at other moments, working in canon with melodies of its own; and at still others, creating a landscape sound-canvas. (I can almost smell the salt mists off the British coastline in Study no. 4!)
In Britten’s Folksong Arrangements, the singer combines the sentiment of the melody with the meaning of the word/text. The piano accompaniment complements the voice in setting the atmosphere of the song. Whether it be a tender melancholy created under the voice in “The Salley Gardens,” the broad, virile landscape of “The Bonny Earl o’Moray” or the whistling fancy of the blond-headed youth in “The Plough Boy,” the voice and piano work together to create a sound image that immediately draws the listener deep into the experience. (For more information on Britten’s use of the piano in these arrangements, please take a look at our Program Notes for June 26.)
People say the human voice was the very first instrument. The stories shared in the folk song are timeless in their common humanity, regardless of era or geography. They will always have a place in our shared human experience. Enjoy!