—W. H. Auden, from Autumn Song
Now autumn is well past its peak, the ground littered in yellow, red, and brown. The oaks are last to shed their leaves, holding fast to some until the spring.
Benjamin Britten’s Temporal Variations (1936)
On December 15, 1936, after a “very rowdy & pleasant meal,’” twenty-somethings Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden, and Louis MacNeice went to London’s Wigmore Hall to hear the premiere of 23-year-old Britten’s Temporal Variations and Two Ballads, one of which set “Underneath an abject willow,” Auden’s poem about and dedicated to Britten. (For Britten’s diary quotation, see Neil Powell’s Benjamin Britten, A Life for Music at 124.) In the words of the Britten-Pears Foundation, “Auden appears to be encouraging his younger friend to break his natural reticence and abandon himself to an Albert Herring-like liberation.” Britten, however, “mocks the mocker . . . a rare example of composer and poet directly in musico-literary dialogue.” [citation]
Britten set several Auden poems, including Autumn Songs (Now the leaves are falling fast), which one commentator has described as “Hopkins crossed with Noël Coward.” The poem is from Auden’s book Look, Stranger!, first published in the UK in 1936, the same year as Britten’s Temporal Variations and 2 Ballads premiered. (T. S. Eliot chose the title for the UK edition. Auden despised it. “It sounds,” he wrote, “like the work of a vegetarian lady novelist.” The book was published in the US as On this Island, in 1937.)
On Spotify: Underneath the abject willow, Now the leaves are falling fast, and two versions of Temporal Variations—the original for oboe and piano, and Colin Matthews’ arrangement. David Nice has written of Matthews’ arrangement of the Temporal Variations:
His arrangements of the piano parts for the Temporal Variations and A Charm of Lullabies are exactly the sort of things that Britten himself, had he lived to hear artists of the calibre of Nicholas Daniel and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, would willingly have undertaken (as he did with Lachrymae a few months before his death). Matthews respects the bald, epigrammatic dialogues with oboe in the quirky if not entirely successful earlier work [Temporal Variations].
Credits: Quotations are from the sources linked in the text. The photographs are of Buttercup Farm and, as always unless otherwise indicated on the blog, are mine.