Chinese poets, translated by Arthur Waley
Britten’s interest in the music of the Orient was awakened by the concert tour to the Far East that he undertook in 1956. This had an immediate impact on the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, with its skilful recreation of Balinese gamelan music and may also have been influential in Britten’s decision to set Chinese poetry in his next work, Songs from the Chinese which was composed during the Autumn of 1957. The cycle is unique in Britten’s output in being scored for tenor and guitar, a result of his friendship with the guitarist Julian Bream (for whom Britten was later to compose the Nocturnal after John Dowland in 1963). However, Britten makes no particular attempt to evoke a specifically ‘Chinese’ atmosphere - rather, the remarkable aspect of this work is how the musical ideas and textures are governed by an understanding of the guitar’s special characteristics and limitations without in any way compromising Britten’s musical identity. The songs (translated from the originals by Arthur Waley) cover familiar Britten themes of innocence, loss and regret. Particularly haunting are ‘The Old Lute’ with its nostalgic reminiscence of the instrument’s ‘ancient melodies’ no longer in fashion, the gently swaying rhythms depicting the ox journey in ‘The Herd-boy’ and the melancholy guitar glissandi that sound throughout ‘Depression’, a haunting meditation on age and decay. The exuberant final ‘Dance Song’, however, brings the cycle to a rousing conclusion.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Britten-Pears Library