Among the many collaborations between Britten and WH Auden are several songs in a ‘cabaret’ style. Four of these, composed between the late 1930s and early 1940s, were published in 1980, four after Britten’s death: ‘Tell me the Truth About Love’, ‘Funeral Blues’, ‘Johnny’ and ‘Calypso’. They were written for the singer Hedli Anderson, a friend of Britten’s and a performer with a remarkable vocal range. (Britten and Pears would occasionally perform one or two of them, although they didn’t record any together.) The texts are full of Auden’s customary virtuosity: by turns witty (in ‘Tell me the truth about love’ and ‘Calypso’), bitter-sweet (in ‘Johnny’) and powerfully moving (in ‘Funeral Blues’). Britten’s settings, fusing jazz, blues, and parodies of other musical styles, match the poems perfectly.

Hedli Anderson in London c. 1930s. Photographer: unidentified.

Auden and Britten shared a house in Brooklyn, NY for a few months in the early 1940s: the crumbling brownstone was known as ‘February House’ because several of its residents had birthdays in February. Auden was born on 21 February 1907, and we celebrate his 111th birthday in this ‘Work of the Week’.

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