Tuesday November 17 2020

‘A sad tale’s best for winter,’ Mamillius tells us in The Winter’s Tale. As the weather becomes chillier, the days shorten, and we deal with the rigours of lockdown we can all take consolation, as we have throughout the COVID crisis, in music.  Britten certainly found that to be the case when the darkness of November and the absence of Pears, who was performing Death in Venice in America, brought a low mood. However, as he wrote to Pears:

‘… I’ve just listened to a broadcast of Winter Words (something like Sept. ’72) and honestly you are the greatest artist that ever was – every nuance, subtle & never over-done –those great words, so sad & wise, painted for one, that heavenly sound you make, full but always coloured  for words & music. …’ (Sunday Nov 17th 1974)

Completed in the early autumn of 1953, Winter Words came into being between operas. Britten began work on the cycle two months before the premiere of Gloriana and completed it six months before commencing composition on The Turn of the Screw. It results from a fairly frenetic period where much was expected of the composer, so the cycle probably provided some respite.

Title page of Britten’s manuscript for Winter Words.

He worked from a 1923 Macmillan imprint of Hardy’s Collected Poems given to him and Pears by Christopher Isherwood in November 1949. The book contains a page on which appears an extensive handwritten list of titles Britten considered for musical setting. The composition draft in the Archive collection comprises eight songs, all written in pencil on manuscript paper, and bound between two board covers. Two extra poems were set that did not find their way into the cycle. Both discarded songs focus on the passage of time and the world’s apparent indifference to human existence — themes highlighted adequately in the other settings.

Britten’s copy of Hardy poems, gifted to him in 1949.

These words ‘sad and wise’ from Thomas Hardy’s pen compensated Britten’s loneliness in November 1974, but they also capture the autumnal atmosphere perfectly. Although the poems were not written in connection with one another, story-telling in miniature and mood-setting are what the eight songs in the cycle are all about. Because of this, Britten draws them together to create a mini winter journey. From the opening line of At day close in November, ‘The hours’ light is abating,’ he introduces a mood and theme that pervade the cycle.

Title of Britten’s setting of At Day Close in November.

The lone ‘journeying boy’ at the centre of Midnight on the Great Western is embarking on an adventure. We don’t know anything about his past or future, but the narrator seems to want to protect him from the cold realties of the world of experience he is about to enter. Courage, such as that displayed by creatures of Nature in Wagtail and the baby, is what is required to survive the trials of a winter world. Hardy and Britten also suggest that memories of past affection can offer solace and fortitude. The Little Old Table symbolises this past affection, although this is no guarantee of future comfort. Indeed, the bitter reality of time wiping affection and memory away is brought to the fore in The Choirmaster’s Burial.

The Choirmaster’s Burial, a poem featured in the Winter Words song cycle.

Proud songsters and At the railway station, Upway highlight the brevity of all living things. These songs remind us that we are ‘particles of grain, and earth and air and rain,’ and although we strain to make the best of life we have to accept its hardships. The idea that a better world lies buried in the past is carried in the final song Before life and after. Hardy laments that our present condition compares unfavourably with a happier, innocent time ‘when all went well’.

True, these songs have a sombre character. Winter and darkness have always had connotations with difficulty and fear. We have to bear in mind, after all, that Britten explored this emotional landscape between the two tragic tales of the ill-fated Essex and the haunted Governess. Moreover, his music reflects upon the emotions we all might experience at one time or another. We should remember, though, that the final song in the cycle begs a question about not if but when a better time will return. In this sense, the darkness of Britten’s winter words is permeated by a glimmer of light.

Photograph of Thomas Hardy featured in Britten’s poetry book.

The songs’ ‘heavenly sound’ can be heard on the classic recordings that Britten and Pears produced in 1954, 1963 and in a 1972 Aldeburgh Festival recital that Britten mentions in his letter to Pears.