Britten composed this song cycle for high voice and piano while a guest of the Armenian Composers’ Union in Dilijan, Armenia, in the summer of 1965. He stayed there with Pears, and with his close friends soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and cellist and pianist Mstislav Rostropovich: the cycle is dedicated to both of them.

Photograph of Britten and Galina Vishnevskaya looking down at something in woods near Dilijan, Armenia, August 1965. Photographer: unidentified.

The texts, by Pushkin, came from a Penguin edition of the Russian writer’s poems Britten had picked up from Heathrow on the journey out. During the Armenian visit, Britten asked his hosts to read the poems aloud in Russian; he then composed the songs from their pronunciation of the words. It was an unusual way for him to work, but the result is a series of hauntingly poignant songs, full of regret, loss and the torment of insomnia, with the soprano line floating above the ethereal piano lines.

House of Composers, Dilijan, Armenia, the place where Britten and Pears stayed while on holiday in 1965. Photograph by Ziazan.

The musical language, as Ziazan tells us in this short film, is imbued throughout with the Armenian harmonies he would have been exposed to during his trip.

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