Summoning the Sun with Britten’s Spring Symphony

Hymn to the Sun. engraving by William Miller 1872

Hymn to the Sun. engraving by William Miller 1872

Each day now, as I look out over the hills, I mark the snow’s receding and watch as deer forage in brown patches that emerge. As I look, I’m gauging when the local rail trail might be free of snow so I can jog and walk outside, rather than eyeing my treadmill balefully (or perhaps the treadmill is balefully eyeing me). Every now and then, but not as often as I should, I get on it, with considerable empathy for the hamster on her wheel.

I think of the fellow at the customs desk in Finland who sized me up and said, with deadpan wit, “For the real Finland, you must come in winter.” I remember Sibelius describing a jolly day with the family, out sledding in the freezing cold. While I grew up with that sort of weather (though not the long dark), that customs fellow had it right: when it comes to winter, I don’t have what it takes.

I think also about how often seasons as metaphors are misused or misapplied. The commentary on Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti is loaded with allusions to Shostakovich as in the “autumn of his life.” It’s as if Shostakovich, in response to illness and approaching death (about which, it should be noted, the “approaching” might only have been possible to know after the fact) had no choice but to turn inward in dark rumination. Yet what I hear most in the Michelangelo Suite is not someone gloomily navel-gazing, but a composer who, fully alive and in command of his process of creating, seeks the highest and best musical expression for the poems he’s chosen to set. Then it’s up to us, as listeners, to make our own meanings of the work.

While not quite so beset with biographical and historical overlay as that of Shostakovich, the music of Benjamin Britten is subject to plenty extramusical gloss. A favorite theme running through the commentaries is lost innocence, and Britten’s Spring Symphony doesn’t escape. It’s not that lost innocence isn’t present in Britten’s work: one need look no further than the line Britten borrowed from W.B. Yeats’s Second Coming for The Turn of the Screw: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Certainly, the Spring Symphony is life-like, with such gorgeous multiplicity of expression it’s neither sensible nor advisable to tease out strands and set them in tidy rows. But when it comes to attempts to uncover a heart of darkness in its finale (see, e.g., Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life For Music 281), I want to shout, “Leave off! Let the guy (and us) be plain old happy, if you please!”

Sometimes, a pipe is just a pipe, and when I listen to that finale, what I hear is a great bloom of joy.

Elizabethan Lyrics ImageTo choose poems for the Spring Symphony, Britten’s “initial resource was a battered copy of Elizabethan Lyrics from the Original Texts, edited by Norman Ault, which he had possessed since 1932.” [Powell 279] (The Ault book, though a later edition—3rd Edition, 1949—may be found here.) Britten wrote of the Spring Symphony:

I wrote the Spring Symphony in the Autumn and Winter of 1948/9, and finished the score in the late Spring of 1949. For two years I had been planning such a work, a symphony not only dealing with the Spring itself, but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the re-awakening of the earth and life which that means. Originally I had wanted to use medieval Latin verse and had made a selection of fine poems; but a re-reading of much English lyric verse and a particularly lovely Spring day in East Suffolk, the Suffolk of Constable and Gainsborough, made me change my mind.

The work is written for a large orchestra, mixed choirs and boys’ choir, three soloists (soprano, contralto, and tenor) and a cow-horn. It is in the traditional four movement shape of a symphony, but with the movements divided into shorter sections bound together by a similar mood or point of view. Thus after an introduction, which is a prayer, in Winter, for Spring to come, the first movement deals with the arrival of Spring, the cuckoo, the birds, the flowers, the sun and “May month’s beauty”; the second movement paints the darker side of Spring — the fading violets, rain and night; the third is a series of dances, the love of young people; the fourth is a May-day Festival, a kind of bank holiday, which ends with the great 13th-Century traditional song “Sumer is i-cumen in,” sung or rather shouted by the boys.

I recognize one shouldn’t always trust the composer’s program notes, but these, I buy.

Will Kempe's Nine Days Wonder: Morris dancing from London to Norwich 1600

Will Kempe’s Nine Days Wonder: Morris dancing from London to Norwich 1600

Listening List

Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony, Op.44 (October 1948 – June 1949)

On Spotify (London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, St. Clement Danes Grammar School Boys Choir, soprano Sheila Armstrong, tenor Robert Tear, and mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker. Conducted by André Previn)

On YouTube (Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Emanuel School Boys Chorus, soprano Jennifer Vyvyan, tenor Peter Pears and contralto Norma Procter. Conducted by Benjamin Britten)

Finale: London, To Thee I Do Present 

Complete Spring Symphony

A Closer Listen

The Spring Symphony is written for soprano, contralto, and tenor solos, mixed chorus, boys’ choir, orchestra, and cow horn.

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd doubling Alto Flute and Piccolo), 2 Oboes, Cor Anglais, 2 Clarinets in B-Flat, Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, Double Bassoon, 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in C, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Cow Horn, Timpani, 2 Harps, Strings, and Percussion (xylophone, vibraphone, bells (A, B-Flat), whip, block, castanets, tambourine, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, gong (from the score)

The texts of the settings may be found here, and a list of the settings appears below.

Part I

  1. Introduction (Shine out, Anonymous, 16th century)
  2. The merry cuckoo (Edmund Spenser, ca. 1552–99)
  3. Spring, the sweet spring (Thomas Nashe, 1567–1601)
  4. The driving boy (Whenas the Rye, George Peele, 1556–96, and The Driving Boy, John Clare, 1793–1864)
  5. The Morning Star (On May Morning, John Milton, 1608–74)

Part II

  1. Welcome, Maids of Honour (To Violets, Robert Herrick, 1591–1674)
  2. Waters above (The Shower, Henry Vaughan, 1622–95)
  3. Out on the Lawn I lie in Bed (W. H. Auden, 1907–73)

Part III

  1. When will my May come? (Richard Barnefield, 1574–1620)
  2. Fair and fair (Song of Oenone and Paris, George Peele, 1556–96)
  3. Sound the Flute! (Spring, William Blake, 1757–1827)

Part IV

Finale (London, to thee I do present, Francis Beaumont, 1584–1616/John Fletcher, 1579–1625, and Sumer is i-cumen in, Anonymous, 13th Century)

The Spring Symphony is, among other things, fully loaded with gorgeous orchestral effects. An analysis from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra chorus may be found here. The comments below are drawn from several sources, including the essay and extensive, albeit rudimentary, consultation with the score. Those who know better should not hesitate to correct any errors.

Part I

  1. Introduction (Shine Out, Anonymous, 16th century; since determined to have been written by George Chapman as part of The Masque of the Twelve Months. [citation 1citation 2]) (mixed chorus and orchestra)

Shine out, fair sun, with all your heat,

As the first theme sounds on timpani and harp, listen for the xylophone to strike three times, followed by a resonating chord on vibraphone (just before the chorus enters on “Shine out”). You’ll hear the vibraphone sound periodically throughout the setting. Only Shine out and the finale contain passages for full orchestra playing together (tutti), and the orchestral color, with evocative roles for woodwind and brass, is richly varied throughout.

  1. Cuckoo, from The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    Cuckoo, from The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    The merry cuckoo (Edmund Spenser, ca. 1552–99) (tenor soloist and 3 trumpets)

The merry cuckoo, messenger of Spring,
His trumpet shrill hath thrice already sounded;

In marked contrast to Shine out, The merry cuckoo is set for tenor and three trumpets. Listen for the cuckoo call on the trumpets, in minor thirds. [ASO Essay 3] (For a grandly “anoraky” discussion about the interval of the cuckoo call in nature and music, click here and follow the comments.)

  1. Spring, the sweet spring (Thomas Nashe, 1567–1601) (all soloists, mixed chorus, orchestra, including a string quartet within the orchestra, with no percussion except timpani)

Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king;

Spring, the sweet spring swings open to include a much larger vocal and orchestral palette. Listen for the soloists on the birdcalls. For entertaining speculation on identifying the calls “ jug-jug, pu-we, and to-witta-woo,” click here for the entry in Notes to Palgrave’s Golden treasury of songs & lyrics, Books 1-4.

  1. From The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    From The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    The driving boy (Whenas the Rye, George Peele, 1556–96, and The Driving Boy, John Clare, 1793–1864, from The Shepherd’s Calendar, May) (soprano soloist, boys’ choir, winds, tuba, tambourine, and strings)

When-as the rye reach to the chin,
And chopcherry, chopcherry ripe within,

The boys’ choir makes its first appearance in this setting, which incorporates the text’s whistling by the “happy, dirty, driving boy.” The boys sing the Peele poem to the accompaniment of winds, tuba, and tambourine; the soprano, singing the Clare text, is accompanied on violins.

  1. The Morning Star (On May Morning, John Milton, 1608–74) (mixed chorus, brass (without tuba), bells, timpani, and bass drum)

Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East . . .

The mixed chorus takes over for this setting, accompanied by brass (without tuba), bells, timpani, and bass drum. Listen for the “morning bells, both real (chimes) and imagined (in the bell-like, swinging dotted-quarters alternating in the trumpets and trombones).” [ASO Essay 4]

Part II

  1. Welcome, Maids of Honour (To Violets, Robert Herrick, 1591–1674) (contralto soloist, wind quintet of piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, strings (without violins), and harps)

Welcome Maids of Honour,
You doe bring
In the Spring

Lower register strings accompany the contralto, with graceful interjections from a quintet of winds and two harps.

  1. Waters above (The Shower, Henry Vaughan, 1622–95) (tenor soloist and violins)

Waters above! Eternal springs!
The dew that silvers the Dove’s wings!

In this setting, the tenor soloist is accompanied only by the violins, which play sul ponticello (near the bridge). The setting is in 5/4 time.

  1. Out on the Lawn I lie in Bed (W. H. Auden, 1907–73, four stanzas from the poem A Summer Night) (contralto soloist, mixed chorus, winds, brass, and bass drum)

Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless night of June;

The mixed chorus, unaccompanied, opens the setting, with winds, brass, and bass drum entering on a quiet chord. Alto flute and bass clarinet emerge to accompany the contralto soloist. As the setting progresses, other winds take up the accompanying lines, and shifts in orchestral color and rhythm work subtle changes in mood. Orchestral blasts and brass volleys disrupt the meditative atmosphere on the words, “Where Poland draws her eastern bow.” The setting slowly dies away, and the chorus sings the final notes on “closed lips.”

Part III

  1. When will my May come? (Richard Barnefield, 1574–1620, excerpted from The Teares of an Affectionate Shepheard Sicke for Love, or the Complaint of Daphnis for the Love of Ganimede, pp. 10-14) (tenor soloist, harps, and strings without double bass)

When will my May come, that I may embrace thee?

Two harps accompany the tenor soloist. The strings open the movement and interject with agitated passages throughout.

  1. Fair and fair (Song of Oenone and Paris, George Peele, 1556–96) (soprano and tenor soloists, winds, and strings without double bass)

Fair and fair, and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be;
The fairest shepherd on our green,
A love for any lady.

Fair and fair begins without pause (attacca senza pausa) after the previous setting. The soprano, accompanied by flute, oboe, and plucked upper strings, opens the setting. The tenor follows, accompanied by bassoon, clarinet, and plucked lower strings. Listen for the “double duet”—a canon between the soprano and tenor and a canon between their accompanying instruments. [ASO Essay 6]

  1. Sound the Flute! (Spring, William Blake, 1757–1827, from Songs of Innocence and Experience) (mixed chorus, boys’ choir, winds, brass, and strings)

Sound the flute!
Now it’s mute.

Listen for the brass evocations of percussion instruments in this percussionless setting. The tenor and bass voices and brass take the first verse; the sopranos, altos, and winds take the second; the boys’ choir and strings come in on the third; and the choruses and instruments come together for the last verse.

Part IV

Finale (London, to thee I do present, Francis Beaumont, 1584–1616/John Fletcher, 1579–1625, excerpted from Knight of the Burning Pestle, Interlude Four, and Sumer is i-cumen in, Anonymous, 13th Century) (all soloists, mixed chorus, boys’ choir, cow horn, and orchestra, including timpani and other percussion: xylophone, whip, block, castanets, side drum, bass drum, cymbals)

London, to thee I do present the merry month of May;
Let each true subject be content to hear me what I say:
With gilded staff and crossèd scarf, the May-lord here I stand.

How I wish there existed a video (perhaps there is?) of Britten conducting the Spring Symphony. As I listen to the finale’s opening, with its buoyant waltz and cow horn announcing the May-lord, I can’t resist a grin. Everyone—soloists, chorus and choir, and orchestra—gets into the act. The boys’ choir, full throttle, summons the next season with Sumer is i-cumen in, and the May-lord proclaims:

. . . God save our King, and send his country peace,
And root out treason from the land! and so, my friends, I cease.

The finale ends on a single, resounding C-Major chord. Blooming with joy, I’d say.

Morris Dancers, artist and date unknown

Morris Dancers, artist and date unknown


Credits: The images in the post may be found here, herehere, here (The Nursery images), and here, respectively. Quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text, with the page number, if available.








16 thoughts on “Summoning the Sun with Britten’s Spring Symphony

  1. hilarymb

    Hi Susan .. you know my abilities … and I so wish I could appreciate fully what you’re describing to us here – but obviously it’s a wonderfully full expose of Britten’s Spring symphony … and those links will be amazing to comprehend this rich passage of time. You’ve been so thorough … 1947/48 was a bitterly cold winter … so it was a good thing he wrote his symphony over 48/49 …

    Cheers to you … and congratulations on such a thorough post – a brilliant reference point – Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: You know, there’s nothing about listening to music that’s beyond anyone’s ability. Perhaps it doesn’t take your fancy, that’s one thing, but here’s what I’d suggest. When/if you come by again, don’t worry about reading the post. Mostly, in a case like this, the information is there for reference if anyone is curious. The main thing, when coming my way, is to have a listen. Do try it sometime. You may find something you enjoy.

      1. David N

        I second Sue, Hilary: this is a good one to just listen to, perhaps with the texts to hand, because Britten just expresses the essence of each so beautifully. The poems are your guide. Maybe ‘abstract’ music is harder, but when it comes to the concert hall, I tell worried friends who aren’t used to sitting through a symphony not to worry about what they ‘ought’ to know and just respond emotionally. If the performers are good communicators, it will never fail.

        You’ve also got Sue’s wonderful listening guide for an extra prop. Believe me, I’m not being condescending – only speaking from experience. People tend to think there’s too much baggage they need to carry with them to works like this.

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    Hearing this for the first time the bird calls and the boys’ chorus stood out for me. This music sounds so lush–especially with the voices–that the best way to hear it, surely, must be live.

    A couple weeks ago a horde of robins descended on the trees around our house and with that (and just like that) spring came to us. A couple days ago some Canadian geese stopped by the lake near our home. You can be sure spring is rushing your way!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: So agree about the thought of a live performance. I’m kicking myself for missing out when the NY Phil performed it a couple years back. I’m on the lookout for another chance and can only hope I get it, as this piece isn’t very often performed. Very glad to know of spring sightings your way. I saw robins flitting around our yard the first time a couple days ago, even though it was still unseasonably cold. A good sign.

  3. David N

    It’s infuriating, isn’t it: people don’t like it that Britten could be so jolly in his youth – I’m thinking of the First String Quartet and Young Apollo, such radiant sensuality, and I hear that in the Spring Symphony finale too. Just because the joy’s pell-mell doesn’t mean it’s sinister – for similar reasons I get fed up with the ‘borrowed laughter and false smiles’ analogy slapped on the civic romps in the finales of Mahlers Five and Seven.

    Even so, the opening – though it has nothing to do with lost innocence – is such a dark yearning for a spring it seems will never come. And there’s real darkness in the central ‘Out on the lawn’, though because as I think you know it’s my favourite poem I find it hard to forgive Britten for cutting Auden there.

    Favourite line from elsewhere in the ‘Spring’ anthology: ‘fly Venus and phlebotomy, for they are neither good’ (if I remember aright). The cowhorn and the whistling are genius, too. MacMillan took a leaf out of ‘The Driving Boy’ with the wonderful whistling tune in a choral masterpiece, Sun Dogs.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I so appreciate your comments here, and in particular your nuanced understanding of this work. Your memory is spot on–I love the line before, as well. There is the whole of a lost world in them:

      Now butter with a leaf of sage is food to purge the blood;
      Fly Venus and phlebotomy, for they are neither good;

      For anyone curious about these lines, below is a link–see entries 460 and 461–with explanations. I do wonder, I must say, about the juxtaposition of “fly Venus” and phlebotomy, but I almost hesitate to look further!

      And here’s a link to Sun Dogs for anyone else who might like to listen in to this gorgeous piece (and, David, I’ve set myself a task of writing Sun Dogs on my mental blackboard a 100 times . . .):

  4. Friko

    …. and sometimes a cow horn is just a cow horn…..

    I loved your little aside.

    Apart from that what else is there to say. As always, you have done great research and laid it out beautifully. Britten is a very complex man/composer and his music needs application. But once you listen closely, there is much to enjoy

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: And I love your aside to the aside . . . and, as a further aside, I was just thinking of you, as you’re the one who introduced me to the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer. To mark the day, here’s one of my favorites of his poems, in memoriam and in celebration of his life.


      After a black day, I play Haydn,
      and feel a little warmth in my hands.
      The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
      The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
      The sound says that freedom exists
      and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
      I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
      and act like a man who is calm about it all.
      I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
      “We do not surrender. But want peace.”
      The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
      rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
      The rocks roll straight through the house
      but every pane of glass is still whole.

      -Tomas Tranströmer

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    I had fun reading some of the poems you linked to in Elizabethan Lyrics. Beyond the poems in their own right, I got a strong sense of how much the English language has changed in 500 years. What I read there is our language and yet isn’t our language.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: You don’t know how pleased I am you followed some of those links. And going back a little further to the 13th C, it’s almost another language altogether, as in “Ne swik thu naver nu!”

      1. Steve Schwartzman

        Right you are: Old English is a foreign language, almost totally incomprehensible to a speaker of the modern language. We can occasionally understand a snippet but then immediately be thrown back into darkness, as in “sing me hwæthwugu” (that last word means ‘something’, with hwæt being the forerunner of what).

  6. shoreacres

    I was interested to read Milton’s “The Morning Star,” since my favorite boat and the one I most sailed was named Morning Star. (Nautical superstition says it’s bad luck to rename a boat, but Morning Star began life as Bilbo Baggins. The change had to happen.)

    I couldn’t help but note Auden’s “Out on the Lawn, I Lie in Bed.” I had a good laugh at the down-home familiarity of “the dumpy and the tall” in the second stanza, but the last was more sobering:

    “And, gentle, do not care to know
    where Poland draws her Eastern bow,
    what violence is done;
    nor ask what doubtful act allows
    our freedom in this English house,
    our picnics in the sun.”

    The circumstances are different, but I couldn’t help thinking of this, from the recent news.

    Best of all you’ve provided, though, are these words of Britten himself: “Originally I had wanted to use medieval Latin verse and had made a selection of fine poems; but a re-reading of much English lyric verse and a particularly lovely Spring day in East Suffolk…made me change my mind.”

    Tonight, the music!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Bilbo Baggins, eh? That’s a beauty of a boat, by the way, though I’m certainly a landlubber of a high order when it comes to that. Seems to me it had to be good luck for that boat to change its name. Yes, your link relating to the Auden lines certainly seems apt to me, and sadly so. I believe the whole of the Auden poem, if of interest, may be found at this link (Britten, as you probably saw, sets only 4 stanzas): (though I haven’t read, and so can’t vouch for, the commentary). There is, as David notes, real darkness in that setting.

  7. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Susan, just a short remark (I love your post!): “For the real Finland, you must come in winter.” – that’s what they tell us on the island of Sylt too. Then there are no tourists (fine) – but also: no sun.
    I have been in Finland in winter (very short) – we did our honeymoon going there and to Sveden. Having married on the 6th of January, it meant: winter. Snow. Frost. – Ah: and sun. We don’t regret it, though we still ask ourselves: why, oh why did we choose that date? There was no reason or necessity at all. :-)

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