By Benjamin Britten
Composed in 1943
This extraordinary work was composed for tenor Peter Pears and horn player Dennis Brain in 1943. It consists of six songs set to English poems framed by a solo horn prologue and epilogue. While many of the poems deal in some fashion with sleep, decay, or death, each has its own distinct character, beautifully set off by the interplay between the two soloists and the strings.
The Pastoral (“The Day’s grown old”) by Cotton describes a late afternoon scene in the countryside with flocks of sheep, lengthening shadows and sunset. “The splendour falls on castle walls” (“Blow Bugle Blow”) by Tennyson evokes the heroics of a bygone age, with bugle calls echoing and dying in a craggy landscape.
For Blake’s doleful Elegy (on its face, about a rose and its destruction by the worm that finds it), Britten has composed horn and tenor melodies based on minor second motifs. It leads directly into the Dirge, a haunting 15th-century anonymous poem about death and whether salvation or damnation awaits the deceased, depending on his/her conduct in life. The Dirge is also notable for its structure, a multi-voiced fugue played by the strings and horn over an ostinato sung by the tenor.
Ben Jonson’s hymn to Diana the huntress is set as a spritely hunting tune, while Keats’ Sonnet (“O soft embalmer of the night”) is a paean to sleep.