Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Benjamin Britten could occasionally be disparaging about pre-twentieth century orchestral and operatic composition in the British Isles, but he always made a careful exception where choral music was concerned. In opera he regarded it as a life's ambition to establish a genre largely missing from his native country, but in the choral sphere he chose instead to work within a tradition, one for which he had the deepest knowledge and respect.
Nonetheless, no tradition touched by Britten's towering musical imagination could fail to be renewed and revitalised, and he left behind a corpus of work which has already embedded itself deeply into the choral and liturgical culture of all Anglophone countries. Choral music, he acknowledged, formed the very bedrock of British musical life in centuries past, from madrigal groups to cathedral choirs, from small professional groups to large amateur choral societies. The selection on this disc has been chosen to represent the breadth and imagination of his musical genius in choral music.
The first work, Rejoice in the Lamb, was commissioned in 1943 by an indefatigable champion of new music for the Anglican church, the Reverend Walter Hussey, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of his church, St Matthew's, Northampton. Britten chose to set the then recently-published 'Jubilate Agno', written by Christopher Smart in the mid-eighteenth century from his eyrie in a lunatic asylum. Even by Britten's own standards it was a daring choice which few could bring off with such dazzling aplomb.
This endearingly eccentric poem explores the wonder of creation from a variety of unusual perspectives - a pre-echo of contemporary magical realism - and allow, Britten a virtuoso display of word settings. A lyrical tenor solo sees the wonder of God in flowers; in a plaintive treble solo the poet considers his cat Jeoffrey, whose morning worship consists of 'wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness'. In its many-faceted exploration of the wonder of God's creation, the work celebrates music's power to heal, its restorative innocence and its capacity to bring unalloyed delight. His contemporaries may have dismissed Smart as insane, it seems to say, but there is a fundamental truth and sanity which we can all access through our childlike selves. The music itself is possessed of radiant wit and childlike simplicity but is never less than thrilling, especially in the glorious catalogue of musical instruments which makes up the climax to the work.
The Te Deum in C was written in 1934 for the choir of St Mark's in London's North Audley Street, and was among the composer's very first to be accepted for publication - albeit by Oxford University Press rather than Britten's later publishers Boosey & Hawkes. It is in one sense at least remarkably daring: in the opening pages it adheres steadfastly to a chord of C major in the choral parts, and builds its musical interest without traditional use of harmonic progression, but by use of short motifs which are constantly reworked. The haunting treble solo which sets the individual against the chorus is a typically ingenious idea.
The Jubilate Deo, so often viewed as a companion work to the Te Deum in C, was actually penned 27 years later, in 1961. In fact it was the first fruit of a proposal from the Duke of Edinburgh that Britten should write some music for St George's Chapel at Windsor. Nothing more of that idea seems to have emerged except this joyous, dancing work, with its pert rhythms, sparkling organ accompaniment and masterly word-setting.
Britten's gift for choosing imaginative and inherently musical texts is demonstrated in Antiphon, composed in 1956 to a George Herbert poem. The antiphonal effects whereby Angels reply to Men throughout the work culminate in a climax where the two sides appear to move apart in ever more insistent discord before weaving their way back to final concord.
The earliest choral work in this collection is A Hymn to the Virgin, which Britten wrote in a matter of hours at the age of seventeen from his sick bed, during his final term at school. It sets a semi-chorus (or solo quartet) interposing Latin texts against a fourteenth-century English poem. This macaronic device is re-used to touching effect in the final section of the Hymn to St Peter of 1955. Here a treble solo sings the text 'Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam' against a quietly insistent, translating chorus of 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church...'. Britten's life-long affection for his own Peter Pears - so much the secure rock of his own emotional life - seems to lend this passage its own heart�-felt, deep resonance.
The Festival Te Deum was composed for a church in Swindon in 1944 at a time when Britten was more fully occupied with scoring and orchestrating his most ambitious project to date, the opera Peter Grimes. Always keen to seek simplicity in his music, he kept the first half of the piece in unison. As with the above-�mentioned Te Deum, Britten explores the final, pleadingly personal lines ('Let me never be confounded') by way of a stark treble solo against a chorus.
The composition of the Missa Brevis in D was inspired by George Malcolm's work as choirmaster at London's Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. The sound world he developed with the boys there had a fresh, natural and slightly harder-edged vocal timbre, quite distinct from the smooth blend typically sought at many Anglican cathedral choirs. Britten loved it. 'The whole choir sang with a brilliance and authority which was staggering,' he wrote to Malcolm after hearing them in early 1959. Penned within a few weeks in early 1959, the Missa Brevis is a delightful work for three-part boys� voices. Its themes show a typically playful iconoclasm (for instance, the Agnus Dei has an inescapable whiff of the cod horror movie about it), its harmonies are joyously rich and exotic, while the rhythms pose a delicious challenge for musically-adept choristers, with seven-in-a-bar syncopations in the Gloria.
Just as the Festival Te Deum was written even while work progressed on Peter Grimes, so the Hymn of St Columba of 1962 emerged during the creation of Britten's towering choral masterpiece War Requiem. Unsurprising, then, that there are more than a few parallels in word and musical themes between this short work, using judgement day texts by the sixth-�century saint, and the opening pages of the great Dies irae in War Requiem.
Britten habitually paid homage to other composers by writing variations on their themes, his Frank Bridge Variations being just one example. It says much about his field of reference that he turned to the great sixteenth-century Spanish composer in his Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria, at a time when early music rarely ventured pre-Bach. Surprisingly, this 1946 work was Britten's only solo organ composition.
The Hymn to St Cecilia was begun during Britten's stay in the United States in the early 1940s and completed during his return on the ship Axel Johnson in 1942. US customs officials confiscated his half-�completed score of the work just before his departure from America. Spurred on by this unexpected loss, Britten re-wrote the first section entirely from memory and used the opportunity of escaping from the drab company on board to complete the rest.
The words are a setting in three parts by the poet W.H. Auden (who regarded Britten as his prot�g�), with each part rounded off by an exaltation to St Cecilia. Auden deliberately conflates his subject - the patron saint of music - with composers and music in general, as well as with Britten himself, whose birthday fell on St Cecilia's Day.
In the second section, Auden offers music its own self portrait: 'I cannot grow, I have no shadow to run away from, I only play' - music is na�ve, incapable of moral growth, simply playing, wanting to be loved. In the third section Auden widens his field of reference to the innocence of composers as a species, including Britten himself: �O dear white children,� he writes 'Playing among the ruined languages,' alluding to the ongoing wartime degeneracy of once-great civilisations, and composers' capacity to deploy the musical building-blocks of those civilisations without political engagement - something alien to him as a writer and artist. Britten's scintillating setting leaves little doubt he understood and endorsed Auden's view of music and musicians, coming to terms with his own pacifism and lack of direct political engagement.
Each section has its own unusual thematic and harmonic developments, and the work sparkles with typical ingenuity, setting technical hurdles for choral singers.
Moreover, the quietly passionate unison choruses of 'Blessed Cecilia�' between each section create a strong unifying effect allowing the work to function at a simple, hymnic level.
As music, it also functions as a hymn or p�an to the art's patron saint: it speaks warmly to musicians who have always delighted in its themes, revelled in its harmonies and relished its technical challenges without perhaps grasping the subtleties of Auden' s texts. Perhaps there is a deep irony in this, or perhaps it is the work's deepest truth. Music is music, pure and simple - in itself it is deeply hard to politicize. Therein lies its joy and its universality.
ReviewsTen Britten choral works are on this disc, plus his only work for organ solo. They include two of his best and mot beautiful, the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, which is Britten at his most inventive and endearing, and the Hymn to St Cecilia, his setting of a splendid Auden poem in which music and words coalesce ideally. ... There are lesser-known treasures here, too. For example, the two exhilarating Te Deum settings and the early Hymn to the Virgin, a predicator of genius if ever there was one. The Missa brevis written for George Malcolm's Westminster Cathedral choristers is enchantingly sung, the recorded sound enhanced by the St John's acoustic. - Michael Kennedy, Sunday Telegraph, June 2000