Singing in Canon, part 1

2 August 2013 in Music

There are many stories to unravel in regards to Benjamin Britten’s prolific output for children’s voices, as well as his interest in the world of childhood and its perceived innocence. On the one hand, he is sometimes compared to Peter Pan, the fictional boy who never grew up, who wanted to surround and amuse himself with other children so that he would not be lonely. Yet Britten’s attraction for the young may have verged on the risqué. (His friend W.H. Auden wrote a letter advising Britten to snap out of it, for his art’s sake.) Gossip aside, the music provides everything: all the stories, all the one hands and other hands, and all the clues to truth. Nostalgia and desire, innocence and experience, fantasy and control are checked and balanced, one against the other. Navigating between those worlds—sometimes playfully, sometimes disturbingly—is a hallmark of Britten’s music.

With that in mind, I today consider Britten in the very tame and clear-eyed role of teacher or parent. In “Old Abram Brown,” he sets up a game for his young singers but keeps them (literally) from getting out of line. The song is a simple canon of a repeated four-bar phrase in E minor, first sung in unison, then in two parts, then in four parts. Stephen Allen* (writing on Britten) remarks that “canons and rounds are fun to sing … and produce an impression of timelessness.” I agree. I’ve sung in canon, diligently counting the agreed-upon number of repetitions with fingers for all to see. The final utterance always elicits some skeptical, darting eyes and hesitant, bewildered smiles: is it really over?

“Old Abram Brown” is part of the collection, Songs for Friday Afternoons, written in the 1930s for boys at a school where Britten’s brother was headmaster. I imagine the music class as a mix of boys of many ages, some with the purest treble voices and others with voices on the verge of breaking. Because people have compared my voice to that of a boy soprano, I will today imagine myself as a member of the Clive House School chorus class (in pants). The contour of the melody presents me with many options in terms of vocal style: I can, of course, sing the whole line in pure, soprano tone. But where’s the fun in that? The octave leap, E to E, lends a bit of illicit excitement to this “funeral march,” but the real occasion for musical ingenuity lies in the series of repeated notes, “Old Abram Brown is dead and gone, You’ll …” (all on E). The pitch is low enough that I can almost sing it in chest voice, but when I do, it sounds strained and a little ugly. In The Golden Vanity, another piece for young boys, Britten instructs the singers to sing out and not be afraid of the chest tone. Thus liberated, I take great pleasure in singing each phrase a different way: all pure and soprano, or more bold and brassy, or some combination of the two. One can imagine a classroom of young singers egging each other on in various ways, eyes popping wide open every time they sing the octave. I bet it was a riot.

The musical canon is simultaneously wild and temperate. There is nothing like it in language. When would prose or dialogue ever resort to overlapping and imitating in such a methodical way? As a composite, the canon turns sense into nonsense. Children know and revel in this fact but are aware that the singing is not a free for all. A canon requires a precise offsetting of the phrase entrances, so that the nonsense is as nonsensical as possible. The musical fun and games are kept quite in control.

I’m making my own game with the score, “reading in” to a choice of key and its particular vocal qualities when, in all likelihood, Britten probably dashed off the song without a second thought. It is interesting, however, that the technique of canon persists in later works. More on the interpretation and meaning of that, anon.

*Stephen Arthur Allen, “Britten and the World of the Child” in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten (1999).