The music of Benjamin Britten has been admired and celebrated for a century now. As a musician, it is incredibly empowering to perform a work by him. Musicians must look past the score though in order to understand how and why these works were created. Luckily, Britten was born into a musical family that supported his talents and enabled him to thrive in his art. Ironically, he was born on November 22, 1913, the same day as the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia. Music formed an important part of his youth, for his mother was an amateur singer, and he was encouraged to explore, and even to compose, before formal music lessons.
At the age of seven, Britten was already composing prolifically. He later attracted the interest of Frank Bridge, an English composer and violist, and became a pupil of his in 1928. Two years later, he went to the Royal College of Music in London, studying with Arthur Benjamin, Harold Samuel and John Ireland. While still a student, he wrote his ‘official’ Op. 1, the Sinfonietta for chamber ensemble, and the Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio. In 1937, he met the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he entered into the lifelong personal and creative partnership that was to become a major inspiration for his music.
Britten’s first volume of seven folksong arrangements from the British Isles for voice and piano was published in 1943. It was prepared shortly before his return to England (Pears and Britten fled to America during the outbreak of World War II for three years). “Down by the Sally Gardens,” the very first song in this collection, is set on the recurrent folk theme of lost love. It is an art adaptation of a near-pentatonic Irish tune. Its form, AABA, utilizes a technique used by Schubert in taking its introductory motif and applying it throughout the piece (Cooke, 1999). This is the first of many art song transformations in these volumes. It shows Britten as a
composer-arranger (rather than a folksong collector). Most importantly, the composition reflects Britten’s concern with the emotional content of the text instead of the musicality. The text is heartfelt and is displayed with only a simple melody.
“Down by the Sally Gardens” may only be forty-three measures, but it is a unique song that presents many challenges to both the conductor and the performer. The score is marked Commodo (quarter note = 66). Commodo is Italian for ‘comfortable.’ Comfortable can be interpreted differently to each performer. Perhaps Britten wanted it to be interpreted specially by the performer, but as musicians, we feel the need to respectfully perform it the way it was intended to be.
A common problem encountered by each conductor in class was the phrasing. The phrasing was marked clearly in the score, but was difficult to perform. The melodic contour of the piece required the singer to cover an octave in four measures while still obtaining a rather slow tempo. As a conductor, does one follow the exact markings or sacrifice a phrase in order to better perform the piece? After watching Peter Pears, accompanied by Britten himself, take so many liberties, I realized the markings were not accurately represented. Pears sang with fluidity and interpreted the piece to his liking. Britten himself was accompanying and casually allowing the musical liberties, therefore allowing variation regarding the dynamics and tempo.
“Down by the Sally Gardens” may not be as famous as Britten’s War Requiem, but it still serves historical significance. This piece showed that Britten was not only a distinguished composer, but a successful arranger as well. The simplicity of this short, yet gorgeous folk song, deserves an equal amount of respect as any of Britten’s master works.
Mason, Colin. “Benjamin Britten.” The Musical Times Vol. 89, No. 1261 (March, 1948): pp. 73-75. JSTOR. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.
Cooke, Mervyn. “Old Songs in New Contexts: Britten as an Arranger.” The Cambridge companion to Benjamin Britten. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Evans, Peter. “The Music of Benjamin Britten.” University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1979.
Hardington, Christopher. “Is This It All?” The Musical Times Vol. 133, No. 1797 (November, 1992): pp. 569-571. JSTOR. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.
Roseberry, Eric. “Britten’s Purcell Realizations and Folksong Arrangements.” Tempo New Series No. 57 (Spring, 1961): pp. 7-16 and 21-28. JSTOR. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.
Stein, Erwin. “Conversation With Benjamin Britten.” Tempo No. 6 (February, 1944): pp. 4-5. JSTOR. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.