In 1952, Britten met the guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream, who was then aged only 19 but already on a mission to expand the guitar repertoire as much as possible. He persuaded Britten to write some songs for voice and guitar, resulting a few years later in a book of folksongs and the Songs from the Chinese, composed in 1957. The modern guitar was an unfamiliar instrument to Britten, but as always he conscientiously researched its capabilities, individual sonorities, and particular limitations in order to write as authentically as possible. Years later Bream commented the songs were ‘beautifully written for the instrument, so Britten had already done his homework.’ (interview with Julian Bream for Gramophone, January 2007).

Bream added: ‘It was only a question of time before a guitar solo came along. The Nocturnal [or NOCTURNAL, after John Dowland as the published score has it] is based on a Dowland song so that again represents the two elements in my life: the lute and guitar.’ John Dowland (1563-1626) was an English composer from several centuries before, who is most well-known for his ‘lute songs’. As Sean Shibe explains in this week’s film, the Dowland theme on which the work is based is heard only at the end of the work: the full theme is explored from multiple perspectives and in many different idioms before being played ‘straight’ (Britten uses the same technique in his earlier Lachrymae for solo viola). It is a haunting and elegiac work, and has been recorded by Sean Shibe – among works by Berkeley, Arnold, Walton as well as Dowland – for Delphian (with thanks to Delphian for permission to use extracts of Nocturnal).

Image above: Peter Pears with Julian Bream in rehearsal for a recital of Elizabethan lute songs and Britten Songs from the Chinese in New York on 2 November 1974. Photographer: Victor Parker.

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