Benjamin Britten

A Charm of Lullabies, song cycle for mezzo-soprano & piano, Op. 41

    Description by Joseph Stevenson

    A Charm of Lullabies was the third Britten composition to be written at Crag House, his new home in Aldeburgh, where he was then planning the first of the festivals that have been held there since 1948.

    While Kathleen Ferrier got most of the attention in the premiere of Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia, Nancy Evans had doubled the role of Lucretia with her in that production. Afterwards, Evans joined with Britten, tenor Peter Pears, and librettist Eric Crozier in putting up the first contributions towards the guarantee fund that made the Aldeburgh Festival possible.

    So it was obviously in gratitude that Britten wrote A Charm of Lullabies for her and dedicated it to her. He mailed it to her in December 1947 with the note that the title "thought up by Eric [Crozier] and me is only provisional, do you like it?"

    Evans must have, because she premiered the set in a recital at The Hague in the Netherlands on January 3, 1948, with Felix de Nobel at the piano. The five songs in it are on poems of William Blake, Robert Burns, Robert Greene, Thomas Randolph, and John Philip.

    Technically, the songs do not require virtuosic singing technique, but they do require clear projection of the text and some sense of drama. Underlying the pleasant imagery of lullabies are a few disturbing images; there are hints of the wiliness and tyranny that an infant can exert in the first song, in the third song it becomes increasingly obvious that the mother and son in the third song have been deserted by the father, and the fourth song is an eruption of parental anger: "Quiet, sleep! Or I will make Erinys whip thee with a snake! Even the soothing fifth song, the closest of all of them to the conventional idea of a lullaby, has one disturbing aspect: Baby is being tended not by Mother but by a nurse.

    Perhaps this is why the cycle has not gained the popularity of other child-oriented Britten vocal works, in particularly the similarly titled A Ceremony of Carols.

    The Britten Estate, in its exemplary stewardship of the composer's legacy, authorized composer Colin Matthews to make an orchestration of the piano part of A Charm of Lullabies. He completed it in 1990. He went slightly beyond the normal task of orchestration, expanding the dimensions of the music in a few places so that it felt more comfortable as an orchestral piece. Some of the expansions also group the cycle into longer spans, as he links the songs into a continuous flow, except for a break before the fourth song. Matthews' tone painting is excellent, and while no one good composer's orchestration even sounds exactly like that of another one, there is nothing about it that sounds false to Britten's style, either.

    The new version was premiered in 1991 in Indianapolis, Raymond Leppard conducting the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with Maureen Forrester, the Canadian mezzo who had long championed the original version.

    Parts/Movements

    1. A Cradle Song (Blake)
    2. The Highland Balou (Burns)
    3. Sephestia's Lullaby (Robert Greene)
    4. A Charm (Thomas Randolph)
    5. The Nurse's Song (John Philip)

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2014 Elan CD 82430
    2013 Decca 4785364
    2012 Ondine ODE 12082
    2011 Chandos CHAN10671
    2011 Onyx ONYX 4079
    2010 Music@Menlo LIVE 201002
    2005 Naxos 8557205
    2005 Avie 2077
    2005 Bridge 9176
    2004 DG Deutsche Grammophon 000212402
    1995 EtCetera Records 1046