Thursday, February 07, 2013


The children's opera The Little Sweep was composed in 1948 by Benjamin Britten with libretto by Eric Crozier. The subject for the composition was furnished by William Blake's two poems (both named The Chimney Sweeper) from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The plight of children in 18th and 19th century England forced into the dangerous occupation of cleaning chimneys provides the metaphor for children exploited, neglected or abused in any age and setting. Britten's opera incorporates a range of reactions to the little sweep who is mistreated  by his employer, misunderstood by the housekeeper, and sympathetically protected by the wealthy children.

Britten and Crozier do not attempt to follow the storyline of Blake's poems which focus most of the attention on the failure of religion and government to correct abuses in society by promising a compensating reward in the afterlife while enjoying the fruits of the labor of the underprivileged.

If you seek performances of Little Sweep on youtube, you may be surprised to find that the one of the most complete ones available was produced in Vietnamese, another in Spanish. Here is a short segment from an English production with Maureen Forrester playing Miss Baggott the housekeeper. 

Songs of Innocence, Song 12, (E 10)   
The Chimney Sweeper
"When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue,
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.              
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep,
Theres little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head        
That curl'd like a lambs back, was shav'd, so I said.
Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight,    
That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack
Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black,

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open'd the coffins & set them all free.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run      
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm,
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm."

Songs of Experience, Song 37, (E 22) 
British Museum
Songs of Experience
Copy T
The Chimney Sweeper
"A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!    
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath, 
And smil'd among the winter's snow:  
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery." 

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