Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Britten Les illuminations

A Journey Through a Dream World

Of the three song cycles that Britten composed — Les Illuminations, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo and the Serenade for tenor, horn and stringsLes Illuminations lies the closest to Ian Bostridge’s heart: “It cost me quite a lot of time and work to make the score my own, but it’s now one of the works in which I feel most at home, despite Rimbaud’s sombre and often impenetrable texts.

The only two composers who have ventured to set Rimbaud’s texts are Benjamin Britten and Hans Werner Henze. No French composer has dared. French isn’t my favourite language to sing in as such, even though I had to study it at school and so I’m familiar with it as a result. But you have to find a way to adapt your voice to the vowels. If you listen to the great French singers of the past, to someone like Pierre Bernac for instance, then you understand every word, you could transcribe it perfectly. It’s incredibly difficult to sing French in such a way. Added to this you have the fact that Les Illuminations was set to music by an Englishman, with the result that the verbal accents are sometimes mistaken. We shouldn’t reproach Britten for this — even Schubert sacrificed correct prosody for the sake of the melody on occasion. The texts are amazing, some of them were written by Rimbaud during the time that he and his lover Verlaine spent in London, teaching French in order to survive. Les Illuminations also includes many English words as a result, sometimes even whole sentences. It’s a hybrid piece, highly surrealistic and evocative — it’s like being on an emotional journey through a dream world. As a singer you have an emotional response to the music that you have to convey; you’re not telling a story as such, but you take the listener with you on an emotional journey.”

Britten seems most probably to have chosen the texts because of their erotic charge, one that suited his own sexuality. Bostridge: “There’s an indication of a double sexual interest in the piece, but there’s also a great nostalgia. The last poem, Départ, can be read on one level as a farewell to the old world, but on another as a farewell to his old Bohemian life.

In Les Illuminations we hear the mysterious phrase J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage (I alone have the key to this savage parade) on two occasions. Britten emphasises this phrase because he sees it as a play on words, as a sort of battle between two keys — and only he, the composer, has the key to these rapid alternations of tonality. But it can also be that the poet himself wanted his words to be so sombre and mysterious that only he — or the composer who takes up the same idea — can understand them.”

The prose texts and poems by Rimbaud that Britten chose seem to have little in common; Britten’s settings also vary greatly in atmosphere, tempo, key and length. Bostridge finds that they nevertheless do work as a cycle, thanks to Britten’s brilliant settings. Although it was originally composed for soprano, the cycle was well-matched to the voice of tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, whom he had already met at the time he was composing Les Illuminations. Bostridge: “The music sounds earthier when a tenor sings it. The male voice is better suited to the characteristic vaudeville-like side of the music. It’s a pity that men don’t have a chest voice — there’s a low G at the beginning of Parade that I sometimes have difficulty reaching, whereas a soprano would reach it easily in chest voice. I find it good to get ideas from a completely different type of singer occasionally for such pieces — for me Bob Dylan is such a singer. Not to imitate him, that would be awful, but to create a particular atmosphere. In general I think it’s a good idea to create links between different musical styles.

Vocally speaking it’s not an easy cycle, but I’ve now sung it so often that I can’t imagine what could have been difficult about it. I know how to tackle its difficulties in order to sing it well.”

Interview: Henriette Posthuma de Boer
Translation: Peter Lockwood