About this work
One of Benjamin Britten's lesser-known works, Songs From the Chinese (1957) is nevertheless an outstanding addition to the repertory of songs for voice and guitar. It seems to reflect changes in Britten's life, especially his realization that, at nearly 45, he had become middle-aged. He and Peter Pears had traveled around the world recently, especially enjoying various East Asian cultures. Britten had not written any music involving tenor solo since 1954, and his next big stage work for the Aldeburgh Festival, Noye's Fludde, would be the only Britten opera without a tenor part. Pears had recently begun a recital partnership with a brilliant young guitarist, Julian Bream. Thus, it was natural for Britten to chose the guitar to accompany the tenor. Pears and Bream premiered Songs From the Chinese at the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival.
The song cycle is comprised of six songs with texts from Arthur Waley's translations of classic verses published in 1946, under the title Chinese Poems. The writing is remarkably condensed and terse, with the spareness of the texture of the guitar writing seeming to reflect something of the spirit of Chinese lute or koto aesthetic. Nevertheless, there are no overt orientalisms in the music.
The songs all can be interpreted as reflecting aspects of Britten's own life, as if he were using them to ponder his middle age. "The Big Chariot," the first song, is metaphor for acquisition of fame, which will "only make yourself dusty." It also admonishes the listener not to take on the sorrows of the world, but at the end Britten repeats that line, reminding the listener that he could never manage to do that. The second song, "The Old Lute," reflects on the fickle changing of public taste; the lute has been superceded by flute and zithern. "The Autumn Wind" is an obvious image of encroaching age. Then the music turns lilting for "The Herd-Boy." The tenderness of the setting reflects Britten's feelings, which are especially awakened by the fact that the boy is exploited, ill-clothed, and unshod, living in poverty. "Depression" features spooky glissandi on the guitar as the words ponder the body's decay. The deceptively named "Dance Song" is about a hunt for a unicorn by the retainers of a duke. Britten seems reminded that a unicorn traditionally represents chastity. The capture of the unicorn causes Britten to dwell on the word "Alas!" ending the work with his recurrent theme of destruction of innocence.