Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Les Illuminations Op.18
1.Fanfare 2.Villes 3a.Phrase 3b.Antique 4.Royauté
5.Marine 6.Interlude 7.Being Beauteous 8.Parade 9.Départ
In 1938 Britten discovered the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud
(1854-1891) and told the Swiss soprano, Sophie Wyss (who had been the soloist in the first
performance of Our Hunting Fathers) that he was eager to set it to music. In March
and April 1939 he composed two Rimbaud songs - Marine and Being Beauteous -
for high voice and strings, and Wyss sang them on 29 April in a broadcast from Birmingham.
On the same day Britten sailed for North America, where he was to live for the next three
years, and soon after his arrival he set about composing more Rimbaud songs, making up a
cycle of six prose poems and one in verse. The poet's own collective title, Les
Illuminations, was adopted for the song-cycle, which Britten completed on 25 October
1939 in Amityville, New York. (He sketched another three songs but omitted them from the
cycle.) Sophie Wyss had meanwhile given the first concert performance of the first two
songs at the Promenade Concerts in London on 17 August 1939, and on 30 January 1940 in the
Wigmore Hall, London, she introduced the complete cycle with the Boyd Neel Orchestra. It
was a striking success. One critic wrote that this work alone would suffice to place
Britten in the front rank of composers of the younger generation.
Rimbaud's esoteric poems, filled with visionary, violent
and sexual images, date from only two or three years in his late 'teens, when he lived
intermittently with Paul Verlaine, part of the time in London's Soho. He believed that
debauchery could bring him a superhuman state of mind, granting him mystic visions of the
world and human society. His intense, feverish imagination expressed itself in fierce,
surrealistic prose that was often not connected by conventional logic yet evoked brightly
illuminated images. ‘I alone hold the key to this savage parade’, Rimbaud
Britten takes that line as a refrain, setting it in the
opening Fanfare and twice more later, and we may infer that these songs are as
personal for the composer as the poems were for Rimbaud. Edward Sackville-West suggested
that the cycle reflects a transition from one phase of life to another or, we might feel,
from innocence to experience.
Musically the vocal line closely follows the diversity of
the text, by turns starkly declamatory, lyrical and heated. The string orchestra
encompasses almost as wide a range of expression, enhancing the mood at all points.
Numerous tonalities are employed, but chiefly the cycle is based on the sharply contrasted
keys of B flat and E, which appear at the outset in Fanfare. To judge from Villes,
probably Rimbaud's vision of London, the French poet had no good opinion of urban life;
the sarcastically dismissive character of the refrain ‘Ce sont des villes!’ is
reflected by Britten's setting. The brief Phrase is an introduction to Antique,
a tender song in a slow dance rhythm. A number of songs are dedicated to friends of the
composer; this one carries the initials of a young German friend, Wulff Scherchen. Two
vigorous songs follow. In Royauté the poet suggests that any commoners can imagine
themselves king or queen for an hour or two. Marine is an ecstatic sequence of sea
In the following interlude (dedicated to Elizabeth Mayer,
at whose home Britten was lodging) the orchestra considers the musical themes of the
cycle, and the singer quietly repeats the fanfare refrain.
Rimbaud gave an English title to Being Beauteous, a
fevered, expressionist love poem. Britten dedicated his eloquent setting to P.N.L.P., the
tenor Peter Pears. The savage Parade catalogues all that disgusted the poet.
Britten thought it should sound creepy, evil and desperate. The music, a grotesque,
nightmarish march based on the first version of an Alla marcia composed for string
quartet in 1933, climaxes in a final declamation of the fanfare refrain. The poet has seen
and experienced enough, has lost his youthful innocence and is setting out towards
whatever maturity may hold. The quiet, deeply-felt Départ sinks to a dark close in
the depths of the orchestra.
© Eric Mason