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"My Favorite Song"

Guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Archive of Past Selections

"My Favorite Song"
December, 2013

Welcome to the monthly feature of the Vocal Arts DC web site in which guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Writer and media producer Arthur R. Smith has been the program note annotator for Vocal Arts DC since 1994.

Benjamin Britten: "Midnight on the Great Western"

Why does a song stay with you and become part of your personal library of musical memories? Or, in literature professor Kenneth Burke's nice turn of phrase, part of your "equipment for living." It seems to be an experience that many, perhaps most people have, hallmark symptoms being that feeling of "falling in love" with a song and repeated listening or playing, just as true whether your tastes run to Schubert or Sinatra.

In a couple of decades as program note writer for Vocal Arts DC, preceded and accompanied by years of listening, piano playing and on occasion some fairly embarrassing singing, I've encountered many wonderful songs, a couple of dozen of which have become part of my own store of treasures. To pick just one is a pleasant impossibility, but here goes, "Midnight on the Great Western" the second song in Benjamin Britten's set "Winter Words" to poetry by Thomas Hardy, composed in 1953, is my "favorite song."

First the words: it's typical practice to slight the poets involved in song and even to beat up on the poetry. (To wit: musical humorist Anna Russell on German lieder, "soggy poetry set to magnificent music.") Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) however, was both a great poet and a great novelist. His literary landscape was Wessex, in southwest of England, which brought forth stories of ordinary life, often blighted in some ways, told with clear-eyed lyricism.

His poems trod the same ground, literally and metaphorically, asking the same discomfiting questions about fate and agency. And doing so in a supremely detailed, matter of fact and observant way. That he notices everything is a good way to move to this particular poem, "Midnight on the Great Western," written in 1917, and depicting a child, perhaps orphaned, riding a train to some unknown destination. Here is the text.

In the third-class seat sat the journeying boy,
And the roof-lamp's oily flame
Played down on his listless form and face,
Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going,
Or whence he came.

In the band of his hat the journeying boy
Had a ticket stuck; and a string
Around his neck bore the key of his box,
That twinkled gleams of the lamp's sad beams
Like a living thing.

What past can be yours, O journeying boy
Towards a world unknown,
Who calmly, as if incurious quite
On all at stake, can undertake
This plunge alone?

Knows your soul a sphere, O journeying boy,
Our rude realms far above,
Whence with spacious vision you mark and mete
This region of sin that you find you in,
But are not of?

From the opening moments details are everywhere: a close up on a train zooms into the light reflecting on the key around the boy's neck. We are with Hardy, just as observant, for two verses. Soon, though, observer turns into questioner, and those questions, of fate, sin, and perhaps that most profound one "where to?" are cosmic ones, and of course unanswered.

Britten responded brilliantly to this text. Its thematic connection to something he explored repeatedly, childhood innocence, as well as its setting, "in motion" (so much of Britten's music is "moving music" parades going by, storms coming in, etc.) must have been part of the appeal. It certainly brings out the scene painter in the composer from the very first musical idea: the sharply dotted rhythm of the falling off of the train whistle, followed by the far off rumble of the train, and then the clickity-clack of the train itself lumbering by.

When the singer comes in, he narrates the story in a smooth vocal line, full of melismas, a liquid quality that contrasts with accented racket the train makes in the piano part. Soon the song, stills (perhaps the train pulling in?) and the singer turns to the questions that fill the second half of the song: "What past can be yours?" No answer except the sound of the train itself, now pp and "from afar" giving a haunting musical vision of the desolation of seeing a light vanishing into the far distance on a cold midnight.

When I first heard this song performed by baritone Kevin McMillan and pianist Martin Katz at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in the 1990s, it floored me. I knew and loved a lot of Britten (but not this work). So much of Britten has this intensely visual feel, almost schematically so sometimes, but this kind of scene painting was new to me in his work, and I would have thought impossible with Hardy-already so visual, so specific. How could something seem more vivid, without perhaps being an actual film?

Yet there it was before me, like other winter journeys in song (Schubert's Winterreise) I was not watching, but was part of it, and accordingly went out to buy a recording to explore more. It was Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson, that I found, and is something that I return to over and over. But of course, like any great song, it has attracted many fine singers, including Ian Bostridge, and in this Britten centenary year, I've found a raft other good ones, perhaps none as special as the composer himself and tenor Peter Pears, who inspired so much of his music.

Here they are. As it says in the Hebrew Scriptures, Selah! (Stop and listen.)

(Title screen is a mistake here. The first song is missing from this performance for some reason, and the second song is labeled as the first.)

Click here to view previous month's submission.

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"My Favorite Song"

Archive of Past Selections