They sit in neat rows, 40-odd pupils from St Pancras Catholic Primary School in Ipswich – some looking as though they’d rather run away and hide. Then they rip into Friday Afternoons, Benjamin Britten’s cycle of 12 songs for children. “The farmer, he loaded his pistol with lead, and shot that old rogue of a fox through his head,” they roar in unison, propelling their words with the force of a small army.
In a more hormonal corner of Suffolk, I hear the same song. But the teenage pupils of Farlingaye High School in Woodbridge have laced it with groovy antiphonal effects. Other schools have even brought in hip-hop and reggae elements.
Friday Afternoons evidently lends itself to adaptation. Britten wrote it between 1933 and 1935 for his headmaster brother Robert Britten and the boys at Clive House Preparatory School in Prestatyn, where choir practice took place on Friday afternoons. Now it has triggered a year-long project, designed to encourage children and young people to sing, and to mark the composer’s centenary.
On Friday November 22 – which would have been Britten’s 100th birthday – tens of thousands of children from across the world will fill school halls and venues including Birmingham Symphony Hall, Ulster Hall and the Sage Gateshead, and sing songs from the cycle. It will be the culmination of several months’ preparation. But they are taking different routes. Most children – but not all – have been coached in-school; some are seasoned singers, others complete novices; many are rehearsing the songs alongside other vocal repertoire.
The project took shape around Aldeburgh, Britten’s home town on the coast of Suffolk. “It’s one of those ideas that comes out of the earth: it just seemed so obvious,” says Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music.
Friday Afternoons fulfils two of Britten’s chief aims: to involve the community in music-making and to get young people singing – but never at the risk of sentimentality or “dumbing down”. Though melodically simple, some of the songs are more rhythmically innovative than many works for professionals – while the texts eschew the cutesy and saccharine-sweet. “Britten’s music for children is real Britten. There is nothing condescending about it,” Reekie says.
Alan Britten, the composer’s nephew, can speak from experience. The son of Robert Britten, for whom Friday Afternoons was written, he sang the songs as a schoolboy. “My uncle always said you should never ‘write down’ to children. You should write what children will like and they will take it. I suspect in his mind was the fact that children are not conditioned by the particular harmonic progressions of Mozart and Beethoven. They just see dots on the page and sing them,” he says.
Nevertheless, Friday Afternoons is clearly tailored to non-professional performers. “My uncle believed that if you received a commission, then you should produce something that was appropriate to it,” says Britten.
In this spirit, a new songbook inspired by Friday Afternoons is being composed for this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, where it will be performed by the New London Children’s Choir. Entitled Innocence and Experience, it brings together poems by William Blake with music by Thea Musgrave, Sally Beamish, Anna Meredith and Charlotte Bray.
“We didn’t start out thinking that we had to commission four female composers,” Reekie says. In fact, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett was initially asked to write the entire songbook. But when he died last December, the commission went to four younger composers. The four have not conferred – nor are they bound by Britten’s own song settings.
“I would never try to imitate anyone else’s style,” says composer Charlotte Bray. “You do absorb things you like from different places. But what comes out is your own voice.”
Bray, 30, is a good ambassador for the project: it was via Aldeburgh Music that she found her feet as a composer. In her childhood she played the cello and sang, but had little experience of writing music. “Not coming from a musical family, I didn’t even know that you could be a composer,” she says. Then, while studying cello at Birmingham Conservatoire, she was asked to do a short composition exercise and “realised that I enjoyed it so much more than all the practice I had done in the last six months.”
So she switched her focus from the cello to composition. “There were so many big gaps in my knowledge of new music,” she remembers. “I really thought that Bartók and Stravinsky were contemporary. But that naivety was a gift. The more you know, the more self-doubt you have. You start to think: “If I’d known that piece existed when I wrote that there’s no way I would even have picked up my pencil.”
Bray first went to Aldeburgh in 2007 to take part in the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme. She has since been back many times. Last year the Aldeburgh World Orchestra performed her BBC Proms commission At the Speed of Stillness; this year a new mezzo cycle will be premiered at Aldeburgh, in addition to Innocence and Experience.
Although by now her work has been heard at the Albert Hall, Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Halls, she retains a particular connection to Aldeburgh and its landscape: “I can always tell, just from looking at my scores, which parts were written in Aldeburgh.”
For the pupils at St Pancras and Farlingaye schools, the sleepy fishing town is just a short car journey away. Over the years they have become closely involved with Aldeburgh Music’s education programme. This has meant, according to Farlingaye’s head of music Gemma Martino, that they’re able “to put Britten’s works into context by going to Aldeburgh, seeing where he worked; hearing his nephews speak. It brings this [slice of] history to life.”
Before they embarked on Friday Afternoons, many of the younger pupils knew little about Britten. Now they are eager to share their new-found wisdom. At St Pancras I’m informed firstly that Britten really did live in Suffolk; secondly that he is definitely dead. “Some of his songs are strange, like that tragic one about the ponytail that needs to be at the front of his head,” says 11-year-old Lucy Giarnese. “What was he thinking?”
One could dissect the social and psychological benefits of the project, or the effect it has on academic achievement. But perhaps the real success stories are the most straightforward. “Before this year I did literally no singing and I definitely want to carry on next year,” says 17-year-old Charlie Hopgood. “Now I’ve realised Britten’s importance in this area of the country. And how big he actually is.”
‘Friday Afternoons’ and ‘Innocence and Experience’ are part of the Aldeburgh Festival on June 9.
Aldeburgh Music Apeal
Please help us to get young people singing. For example, £60 enables Aldeburgh Music to support a class or choir to take part in Friday Afternoons. If you’d like to make a donation of any size to support Friday Afternoons, text 70070 with the code FRID13 and then the amount you wish to give. Or donate online (all currencies) via www.aldeburgh.co.uk/fridaypm