movement,” “scherzo,” and Finale. With the exception of three verses by Auden, Blake and Clare, all the texts are by poets who flourished between the mid-sixteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century. They comprise a “who’s who” of English verse: Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, John Clare, John Milton, Robert Herrick, Henry Vaughan, W.H. Auden, Richard Barnefield, William Blake, and the great Jacobean literary partnership of English Restoration drama, (Francis) Beaumont and (John) Fletcher.
The Introduction depicts our world in the throes of the dead of winter. Following the opening measures characterized by the hollow sounds of timpani, bass drum, gong, two harps, vibraphone, and the eerily icy sound of the xylophone, the chorus begin their pleas to the long absent sun to “shine out.” Now muted strings play upon the “hollow” sound of tritone intervals, followed by another choral interjection. Still unsuccessful, they are followed by winds and trilling strings representing the beginnings of a thaw, the first stirrings of life beneath the ice. But not enough: here two especially colorful lines of text are sung, “The grey wolf howls he does so bite; Crookt age on three knees creeps the street.” The next orchestral attempt to break the freeze features muted trumpets, horns, trombones, and tuba, distantly playing a sort of ascending fanfare. This, too, fails. Finally, all of the previously heard elements combine in a burst of energy, one last attempt to raise the sun. This is one of only two moments in the entire work when all the orchestral forces are united. Frustrated, they slowly give up their efforts. Only the vibraphone and fading voices are now heard in one last shivering gasp.
Trumpets and tenor herald the arrival of spring. It seems to have come overnight, in the blinking of an eye. The tenor’s first words, “The merry cuckoo,” are given more of a portrayal in the following movement, “Spring, the Sweet Spring,” marked con slancio (“dashingly”). Here all three vocal soloists imitate the sounds of birds, an enchanting effect. In “The Driving Boy” we are finally treated to one of the most endearing aspects of the work’s scoring. The children’s voices sing of “strawberries swimming in the cream and schoolboys playing in stream” and even whistle to their hearts’ content, as the soprano soloist, observing admiringly, sings a complimentary text by Clare. The long first movement comes to a close with Milton’s “The Morning Star.” Another stroke of colorful orchestration is Britten’s use here of horns, trumpets, trombones, and bells. The brass instruments create the sound of a glorious peal, heralding the “bounteous May, that doth inspire Mirth and youth, and warm desire.”
Part II brings us even more color, beginning with Herrick’s “Welcome Maids of Honour.” Here the harps make a great contribution, foiled by the drooping sounds of violas, violoncellos, and basses, ultimately depicting the poem’s last regretful and sadly ironic lines. “Waters Above,” scored for tenor and violins only, playing mostly ponticello (on their instruments’ bridges), portrays an exquisite evening shower. Another evening is described in lines from Auden’s poignant poem “A Summer Night.” Introduced by a wordless choir, the scoring (for winds, brass, and percussion) immediately foretells a darker subtext. While the alto soloist extols a blissfully peaceful night, she reminds us of those things we “do not care to know,” of the atrocities in war-torn Poland, and of the terrible price others pay to allow “Our freedom in this English house, Our picnics in the sun.” In context, this is a chilling sentiment, certainly one not expected.
Part III, the “scherzo” of this symphony, is comprised of three highly animated verses. At first, in “When Will my May Come,” the tenor’s urgent and somewhat exaggerated protestations are accompanied by nearly hysterical strings and harps, all very much “over the top” and a perfect snapshot of the text. A romp of canons follows in Peele’s “Fair and