About this Recording
8.554791 - BRITTEN: Rejoice in the Lamb / Hymn to St. Cecilia / Missa Brevis, Op. 63
English 

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Choral Works

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 protégé), 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 naïve, 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 pæan 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.

Barry Holden



Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30

Festival Cantata for treble, alto, tenor and bass soloists, choir and organ Text from Jubilate Agno) by Christopher Smart


[1]

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues (chorus)



Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life. Let man and beast appear before him and, magnify his name together.

Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar, and consecrate his spear to the Lord.

Let Ishmael dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty in which the Lord has let him at large.

Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.

Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all might through faith in Christ Jesus.

Let Ithamar minister with a Chamois, and bless the name of Him, that cloatheth the naked. Let Jakim with the Satyr bless God in the dance.

Let David bless with the Bear - The beginning of victory to the Lord - to the Lord the perfection of excellence – Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenlv harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.




[2]

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey (treble solo)



For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey.

For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.

For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

Far he knows that God is his Saviour.

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.

For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless.

Almighty God.




[3]

For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour (alto solo)



For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.

For - this a true case - Cat takes female mouse – male mouse will not depart, but stands threat'ning and daring.

If you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as you are. For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.

For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.




[4]

For the flowers are great blessings (tenor solo)



For the flowers are great blessings.

For the flowers have their angels even the words of God’s Creation.

For the flower glorifies God and the root parries the adversary.

For there is a language of flowers.

For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.




[5]

For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour (chorus)



For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour.

For they said, he is besides himself.

For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchman smites me with his staff.

For Silly fellow! Silly fellow! is against me and belongeth neither to me nor to my family.

Far I am in twelve HARDSHIPS, but he that was born of a virgin shall deliver me out of all.




[6]

For H is a spirit and therefore he is God (bass solo)



For H is a spirit and therefore he is God.

For K is king and therefore he is God.

For L is love and therefore he is God.

For M is musick and therefore he is God.




[7]

For the instruments are by their rhimes (chorus)



For the instruments are by their rhimes.

For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like.

Far the harp rhimes are sing ring string and the like.

For the cymbal rhimes are bell well toll soul and the like.

For the flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute and the like.

For the Bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.

For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat and the like.

For the Clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.

For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound soar more and the like.

For the TRUMPET of God is a blessed intelligence and so are the instruments in HEAVEN.

For GOD the father Almighty plays upon the HARP of stupendous magnitude and melody.

For at that time malignitv ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.

Fur this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.




[8]

Hallelujah from the heart of God (chorus)



Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.




[9]


[13]

Te Deum in C,


Festival Te Deum, Op. 32

for choir and organ



We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

All the earth doth worship Thee, the Father everlasting.

To Thee all Angels cry aloud, the Heav'ns and all the Pow'rs therein.

To Thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of Sabaoth!

Heav'n and earth are full of the majesty of Thy Glory.

The glorious company of the Apostles, praise Thee.

The goodly fellowship of the Prophets, praise Thee.

The noble army of Martyrs, praise Thee.

The Holy Church thro'out all the world doth acknowledge Thee;

The Father of an infinite Majesty;

Thine honourable, true and only Son;

Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.


Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ,

Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.

When Thou tookest it upon Thee to deliver man,

Thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb.

When Thou had'st overcome the sharpness of death,

Thou did'st open the Kingdom of Heav'n to all believers.

Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the Glory of the Father.

We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge.

We therefore pray Thee, help Thy servants,

Whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood.

Make them to be number'd with Thy Saints in glory everlasting.


O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine heritage.

Govern them, and lift them up forever.

Day by day we magnify Thee, and we worship Thy name ever world without end.

Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.

O Lord, have mercy upon us.


O Lord, let Thy mercy lighten upon us, as our trust is in Thee.

O Lord, in Thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded.




[10]

Jubilate Deo



O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands, serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song. Be ye sure that the Lord he is God:

It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.


O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise;

be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.


For the Lord is gracious and his truth endureth from generation to generation.

His mercy is everlasting, for the Lord is gracious.


Glory be to the Father, and to the Son; and to the Holy Ghost;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.




[11]

Antiphon, Op. 56b



Chorus: Praisèd be the God of love

Men: Here below,

Angels: And here above:


Chorus: Who hath dealt His mercies so,

Angels: To His friend,

Men: And to His foe:


Chorus: That both grace and glory tend

Angels: Us of old,

Men: And us in th’ end


Chorus:The great Shepherd of the fold

Angels: US did make

Men: For us was sold

Chorus: He our foes in pieces brake:

Angels: Him we touch;

Men: And Him we take


Chorus: Wherefore, since that He is such,

Angels: We adore,

Men: And we do crouch


Chorus: Lord, Thy praises should be more,

Men: We have none,

Angels: And we no store


Chorus: Praisèd be the God alone,

Who hath made of two folds one.


(George Herbert)




[12]

A Hymn to the Virgin



Of one that is so fair and bright

Velut maris stella,

Brighter than the day is light,

Parens et puella:

I cry to thee, thou see to me,

Lady, pray thy Son for me,

Tam pia,

That I may come to thee, Maria!


All this world was forlorn

Eva peccatrice,

Till our Lord was ybore

De re genetrice.


With ave it went away

Darkest night, and comes the day

Salutis;

The well springeth out of thee.

Virtutis.


Lady flow'r of ev'rything,

Rosa sine spina.

Thou bare Jesu, Heaven's King,

Gratia divina:

Of all thou bear'st the prize,

Lady Queen of paradise

Electa:

Maid mild, mother es

Effecta.


(Anonymous, c. 1300)



Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63


[14]

Kyrie

[14]

Kyrie



Kyrie eleison.

Christe eleison.

Kyrie eleison.


Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.






[15]

Gloria

[15]

Gloria



Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te.

Gratias agimus tibi propter Magnam gloriam tllam.

Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Parer omniporens.

Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis, suscipe deprecationem nostram.

Qui sedes ad dextram Patris, miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe.

Cum sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris, Amen.


Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of goodwill.

We praise Thee; we bless Thee; We adore Thee; We glorify Thee.

We give thanks for Thee for Thy great glory.

O Lord God, heavenly King, God the father almighty.

O Lord the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. O Lord God, lamb of God, Son of the Father.

Thou who takest away the sins of the world have mercy upon us and receive our prayer.

Thou who sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.

For thou only art Holy, Thou only art the Lord. Thou only, Jesus Christ, art most high.

With the Holy Ghost in the glory of God the Father. Amen.







[16]

Sanctus

[16]

Sanctus



Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,

Dominus Deus, Sabaoth.

Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.

Hosanna in excelsis.


Holy, Holy, Holy,

Lord God of Hosts.

Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna in the highest.







[17]

Benedictus

[17]

Benedictus



Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domini.


Hosanna in excelsis.


Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.






[18]

Agnus Dei

[18]

Agnus Dei



Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Dona nobis pacem.


O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Grant us peace.






[19]

Hymn to St Peter, Op. 56a





Thou shalt make them Princes over all the earth:

They shall remember thy name, O Lord,

Thou shalt make them Princes.


Instead of thy fathers, Sons are born to Thee:

Therefore shall the people praise thee, Alleluia.


Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Alleluia.

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. Alleluia.






[20]

A Hymn of St Columba





Regis regum rectissimi

prope est dies domini,

dies irae et vindictae,

tenebrarum et nebulae,

Regis regum rectissimi.


Diesque mirabilium

tonitruorum fortium,

dies quoque angustiae,

maeroris ac tristitiae.

Regis regum rectissimi.


In quo cessabit mulierum

amor et desiderium

nominumque contentio

mundi hujus et cupido,

Regis regum rectissimi.


King of kings and of lords most high, Comes his day of judgement nigh:

Day of wrath and vengeance stark,

Day of shadows and cloudy dark.

King of kings and of lords most high.


Thunder shall rend that day apart,

Wonder amaze each fearful heart.

Anguish and pain and deep distress

Shall mark that day of bitterness.

King of kings and of lords most high.


That day the pangs of lust will cease,

Man's questing heart shall be at peace;

Then shall the great no more contend

And worldly fame be at an end.

King of kings and of lords most high.


(Attributed to St. Columba (521-597))




[22]

Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27


I

In a garden shady this holy lady

With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,

Like a black swan as death came on

Poured forth her song in perfect calm:

And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin

Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,

And notes tremendous from her great engine

Thundered out on the Roman air.


Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,

Moved to delight by the melody,

White as an orchid she rode quite naked,

In an oyster shell on top of the sea;

At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing

Came out of their trance into time again,

And around the wicked in Hell's abysses

The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.


Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions

To all musicians, appear and inspire:

Translated Daughter, come down and startle

Composing mortals with immortal fire.




II


I cannot grow;

I have no shadow

To run away from,

I only play.


I cannot err;

There is no creature

Whom I belong to,

Whom I could wrong.


I am defeat.

When it knows it

Call now do nothing

By suffering.


All you lived through,

Dancing because you

No longer need it

For ally deed.


I shall never be Different. Love me.


Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions

To all musicians, appear and inspire:

Translated Daughter, come down and startle

Composing mortals with immortal fire.




III

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,

O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,

Where Sorrow is herself forgetting all

The gaucheness of her adolescent state,

Where hope within the altogether strange

From every outworn image is released,

and Dread born whole and normal like a beast

Into a world of truths that never change:

Restore our fallen day, O re-arrange.


O dear white children casual as birds,

Playing among the ruined languages,

So small beside their large confusing words,

So gay against the greater silences

Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,

Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,

Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,

Weep for the lives your wishes never led.


O cry created as the bow of sin

Is drawn across our trembling violin.


O law drummed out by hearts against the still

Long winter of our intellectual will.


That what has been may never be again.


O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath

Of convalescents on the shores of death.


O bless the freedom that you never chose.


O trumpets that unguarded children blow

About the fortress of their inner foe.


O wear your tribulation like a rose.

Blessed Cecilia, appear ill visions

To all musicians, appear and inspire.

Translated daughter, come down and startle

Composing mortals with immortal fire.


(W .H. Auden)


The words for Hymn to St Cecilia have been reproduced by kind permission of Faber and Faber.


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