This set of songs is one of Britten’s earliest examples of music that would be ‘useful’ to a particular community. It was composed for the children at his brother’s prep school in Prestatyn, who always had a singing lesson on a Friday afternoon. They were not conceived as a cycle of any kind, and in fact were compiled over a couple of years, an unusually long gestation for a Britten work. The vocal parts are typical of the kind of music Britten would continue to write for children: memorable and relatively easy to learn, yet satisfyingly challenging.
As well as being performed regularly since their composition and publication in the mid 1930s, the group of songs has had an extraordinarily productive afterlife. In 2012, the film director Wes Anderson used ‘Cuckoo’ and ‘Old Abram Brown’ (as well as other music by Britten) in Moonrise Kingdom, causing the songs to rocket up the Classical charts that year. And the very successful Friday Afternoons project run by Snape Maltings has been expanding ever since its inception in 2012: each year a different composer is invited to compose a new set of songs, thus adding significantly to the repertoire of singable songs for children. Errollyn Wallen, who introduces this week’s film, is the composer of the 2018 set and discusses how his songs and his approach to making ‘useful’ music influenced her own group, and how humbling it was to follow in his example.