Who are these children?, a cycle of twelve settings of the Scottish poet William Soutar, was composed in the summer of 1969 but not given its first complete performance until two years later. Britten's long-standing fascination with the world of childhood had recently been given renewed impetus by his decision to revive some of his childhood compositions, notably the Walter de la Mare settings Tit for Tat, and his (deliberately mis-spelled!) Five Walztes for piano. Eight of the settings that make up Who are these children? are miniatures in Scots dialect which (with the exception of the last) focus on the happier, more innocent aspects of childhood. The four more substantial songs (in English) deal with darker themes, particularly the plight of children in the context of violence and war. The penultimate song of the set, 'The Children', presents this at its most stark and uncompromising with the 'air-raid siren' harmonies in the piano part evoking an appropriately sinister atmosphere. The concluding song, 'The auld aik', is one of the most affecting of Britten's late songs, using the simplest of musical means (a series of common chords) to convey the sadness at the felling of the old oak tree that has stood for 'twa hunner year', a poignantly appropriate ending for the song-cycle which would prove to be the last that Britten wrote for himself and Pears to perform.
Audio extracts courtesy of Decca. Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (1972)
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