Stop all the clocks for a music performance of obscured love letters.

Cabaret Songs

Benjamin Britten, Conor Mitchell, Jamie McDermott

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Singer Jamie McDermott of The Irrepressibles adds colour and passion to a radical new interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s popular Cabaret Songs. Britten wrote the songs in 1937, inspired by the Berlin nightlife of the interbellum. On the occasion of Britten’s centenary, composer Conor Mitchell added eight new compositions to the four original songs. Four of these are set to poems which W.H. Auden had written for Britten, but which were never used; and four are set to new lyrics by Mark Ravenhill. The songs deal with excitement, ecstasy, doubt and despair. They make up a subtle commentary on Britten’s relationship with Auden, their impending break-up and his budding love for his future life partner Peter Pears. A music performance of obscured love letters.

Programme book


Benjamin Britten, Conor Mitchell
W.H. Auden, Mark Ravenhill
Jamie McDermott
Stephen Higgins
Aldeburgh Music
with support of
Arts Council England

Jamie McDermott's soaring croon recalls Ferry, Bowie and Mael ...

The Independent

Background information

It is a century ago that Benjamin Britten, one of the most popular English composers of the twentieth century, was born. From the start, Britten’s music has featured frequently at the Holland Festival. At the first edition in 1947 both The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring were performed, and in 1949 his Spring Symphony premiered at the festival. In 2010 the church parable Curlew River was restaged and in 2011 his chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia was once again performed. Britten and his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears, were very popular guests at the festival. In this centenary year Britten is represented by a new programme with a relatively light touch, featuring his Cabaret Songs (1937), the lyrics for which were written by the poet W.H. Auden. The four original songs are complemented by eight new songs, specially written for this programme by the Irish composer Conor Mitchell. The world premiere of the extended Cabaret Songs will be in June 2013 at the Aldeburgh Festival – which was set up by Britten himself and modelled on the Holland Festival.


The songs are not, as is usual, sung by a woman, but by a man, namely Jamie McDermott, the front man of the theatrical English pop group The Irrepressibles. However, this is no co-incidence. In the period that Britten composed the Cabaret Songs, he met his later life partner Peter Pears. The declarations of love he gives the singer to sing, can easily be interpreted as his own. McDermott has a distinctive singing voice with a warm and dark low register and a thin falsetto. His theatrical manner of performing, supported by a quick vibrato, is reminiscent of Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. In 2011, McDermott and his ten strong band performed their programme Human Music Box at the Holland Festival, an extraordinary mix of pop and performance with lavish stagings referring to the decadent Berlin cabarets of the 1920’s.


In the 1930’s Britten (1913-1976) frequently worked with Auden (1907-1973), whom he was (romantically) involved with in a troublesome relationship. Britten conceived his Cabaret Songs over a period of two years. They were written for the English singer Hedli Anderson, whom Britten and Auden knew from the experimental theatre company The Group Theatre. Auden’s lyrics were based on his experiences of the exciting night life in Berlin. Accordingly, Britten chose to set the lyrics to a fitting popular style, featuring references to American jazz and the works of Kurt Weil. However, not all the songs are light in tone: the famous Funeral Blues is dark and ominous and seems not only to mourn the break-up of a love affair, but also to anticipate the impending catastrophe that was awaiting Europe.


There were four more texts which Auden supplied, but these were not set to music by Britten. However, composer Conor Mitchell has now taken up this task. In addition, the English playwright, poet, actor and journalist Mark Ravenhill has produced four more texts for the occasion, which have also been set to music by Mitchell. Hence, three sets of four songs have been created, running from the past to the present. In this way, the love affair which is central to the songs, with its excitement, doubts and disappointments, has been given a new layer. Sung by Jamie McDermott’s sensuous falsetto this new, updated presentation of the Cabaret Songs not only provides top class entertainment, but also delivers a subtle commentary on Britten’s affair with Auden, their impending split up, and his budding love for Peter Pears. In other words, a music performance of obscured love letters.


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was an English composer, pianist and conductor. He is regarded as the greatest English composer since Henry Purcell and was one of the most prominent classical composers of the twentieth century. Britten started his studies in composition at the early age of 12 with Frank Bridge at Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk. With the help of a grant he was allowed to continue his studies at the Royal College of Music in London with John Ireland (composition) and Arthur Benjamin (piano). Unfortunately, his plan to study in Vienna with Webern and Berg did not materialise. Nevertheless his early works already proved very successful and in 1937 he had his major breakthrough with Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival. On the grounds of the compositions which followed this, especially Sinfonia da Requiem and Serenade, Britten was perceived as playing a leading role in the world of British classical music. In 1945 his second opera Peter Grimes premiered, which firmly established him in this role. From 1939 until 1942 Britten lived in the United States. On his return he settled in the English village of Aldeburgh. In 1947 he performed with his English Opera Group at the first ever Holland Festival. A year later, in 1948, he founded the now world famous Aldeburgh Festival in his home village. Britten wrote many works for his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and is regarded as one of the greatest composers of vocal music in the history of music. His collaborations with the poet W.H. Auden were of great importance to his development in this field. Other famous works by Britten include The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, A Midsummer Night's Dream set to text by Shakespeare, Death in Venice and the War Requiem. He also composed a lot of film music. In the year he died, 1976, he was given a peerage.


Conor Mitchell is an Irish composer and writer. He composes mainly vocal music, such as opera and songs. In 2009 he wrote the play The dummy tree, commissioned by the Royal National Theatre. He has regularly worked together with the writer Mark Ravenhill; they collaborated on the opera Intolerance for the Spark Opera Company Belfast (2010), the award winning song cycle Ten plagues for Marc Almond (2011), the choral work Shadow time for the London Gay Men’s Chorus (2012) and the opera Our day for the Northern Ireland Opera (2012). Mitchell was writer in residence at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and artist in residence at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast. He has twice received the Scotsman's prestigious Fringe First Award for performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He also won Best Score Award at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the Stiles and Drewe Song Writers Award and the Arts Foundation Fellowship Award for Composition.


The poet and essayist Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the last century. He was born in the English city of York; in 1946 he became an American citizen. Auden studied English literature at Christ Church, Oxford. After his studies he lived in Berlin for a year, where he was able to be openly homosexual. His first collection, Poems, was published in 1928. His early poems were written in a dramatic tone and established his reputation as a prominent, left-wing political poet. In 1935 he met Benjamin Britten, whom he collaborated with on plays, song cycles and an opera libretto. That same year he married Erika Mann, the daughter of Thomas Mann, in order to get her a British passport. They did not live together, but never got divorced. In 1939, Auden emigrated to America with his friend Christopher Isherwood, where he began to concentrate on religious and ethical themes. In New York he met the poet Chester Kallman, who became his life partner. In New York he worked with artists including Igor Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze and Nicolas Nabokov. In 1948 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his long poem The age of anxiety (1947). From 1956 to 1961 Auden was professor of poetry at Oxford, where he lectured three times a year. During the last years of his life he spent his summers in Austria. He died in 1973 in Vienna. In Anglo-Saxon countries many of Auden's poems are widely known. In the 1994 film Four weddings and a funeral his poem Funeral Blues is read out in the funeral scene, featuring the famous opening line “Stop all the clocks”.


Jamie McDermott is a British musician and artist. The Yorkshire born McDermott is the lead singer and guitarist of the Irrepressibles. He is known for his characteristic style of singing, in which he combines the crooner with the countertenor, and is interested in blurring the boundaries between popular and contemporary classical music. He formed the ten strong art pop band The Irrepressibles in 2002. The band is often compared to David Bowie, Kate Bush, Antony & the Johnsons and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The British Sunday Times described the band as “an enchantingly theatrical pop extravaganza.” Mc Dermott recorded two albums with The Irrepressibles, Mirror Mirror (2010) and Nude (2012). The band has performed at the South Bank Centre, the Barbican Hall and many other top venues. In 2005 McDermott formed the collective Conversations with Sound, an international vocal ensemble which makes intervention art with improvised performances in public spaces, for instance an underground station. In 2009 they created the Opera of Surveillance for the Grimeborn opera, of which an extended version was performed at King's Place in London in January 2013. In 2012 McDermott sang one of the leads in the chamber opera Star-shaped biscuit by composer and librettist David Toop. He also sang one of the Pierrots in a special performance of Schönberg's Pierrot lunaire in a Nonclassical event by Gabriel Prokofiev, on the occasion of the work's centenary. In 2011 he visited the Holland Festival with The Irrepressibles for a performance of their show Human Music Box.