About this Recording
8.557202 - BRITTEN: Canticles Nos. 1-5 / The Heart of the Matter (English Song, Vol. 9)
English  German 

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Canticles I–V • The Heart of the Matter

The term ‘canticle’ usually refers to a hymn in scripture or sometimes to certain psalms, but Benjamin Britten gave it a new meaning when he chose it as the title of a setting of a poem by the seventeenth-century Royalist poet Francis Quarles, My Beloved is Mine, that he composed for high voice and piano in the first half of September 1947. Eventually he would write five Canticles, each for a slightly different instrumentation, though all of them feature the tenor voice and all were written with Peter Pears in mind. Britten saw them as a new form, though one with roots in the Divine Hymns of Purcell. Each is in effect a miniature cantata with several constituent movements that also reflect elements of song-cycle, and each presents a religious (though not necessary scriptural) text in a semi-dramatic context.

Probably, however, he chose ‘Canticle’ as the title of My Beloved is Mine because Quarles’s words are an impassioned reformulation of words from the Song of Solomon, itself sometimes known as a Canticle in the Anglican Church. Canticle I was written for a memorial concert for the tenth anniversary of the death of Dick Sheppard (1880-1937), the Christian minister and broadcaster, pacifist and founder of the Peace Pledge Union. Britten and Peter Pears gave the first performance at this concert, at Central Hall, Westminster, on 1st November 1947. The setting divides into four spans or sections. The stream imagery of the poem’s first two stanzas is echoed in the flowing, barcarolle-like piano writing. There follows a short recitative that leads to a lively scherzo in canon, the canonic writing reinforcing the imagery of mutual dependency between the poet and the beloved. The final stanzas are treated as a warm, slow-moving epilogue, with a reminiscence of the work’s opening in the piano’s postlude.

Canticle II is a considerably more ambitious affair. Entitled Abraham and Isaac, it pits tenor and alto voices against one another in dramatic dialogue as it enacts the Biblical story, on a text taken from the Chester Miracle Play Histories of Lot and Abraham. Composed in January 1952, the work is dedicated to Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears, who gave the first performance that month in Nottingham, with Britten at the piano. Here the effect is almost of a miniature opera, with dramatic gestures and strongly-formed characters. The Voice of God is represented as something above and beyond the individual by the device of having both singers deliver his words in unison. There is also a polarity of key, between the E flat of God and its opposite pole, A major, for Abraham and his obedience. The piano’s arpeggio figure, punctuating God’s initial summons, proves the source of most of the Canticle’s motivic shapes. After the climactic passage of Abraham’s resolve to do God’s will by slaying his son, with Isaac’s acquiescence in his fate, the impending sacrifice is suddenly arrested by the return of God’s E flat tonality, in which key the serene epilogue of the work takes place, with God and man reconciled. Nine years later Britten re-used material from this Canticle for his setting of Wilfred Owen’s bitter rewriting and reversal of the Abraham legend in the War Requiem.

Canticle III is usually known as Still falls the Rain, though the full title is in fact Still falls the Rain – The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn. The text is a poem by Edith Sitwell which the composer especially admired and the work, scored for tenor, horn and piano, was composed in November 1954. On 28th January 1955 Peter Pears, Dennis Brain, and Britten gave the world première at the Wigmore Hall, London, at a memorial concert for Noel Mewton-Wood, the brilliant Australian pianist and champion of new music who had recently committed suicide, and the Canticle is dedicated to his memory. The work shows strong affinities with the chamber opera The Turn of the Screw, which Britten had completed only a short time before. Canticle III is based on a theme that uses all twelve chromatic pitches (but not employed as a Schoenbergian twelve-note row) upon which the horn and piano enact six variations. The variations are separated by recitatives in which the tenor declaims the stanzas of Sitwell’s poem, each opening with the words ‘Still falls the rain’. These culminate in a daring passage of Sprechgesang (speech-song, showing the influence of Schoenberg and Berg) when Sitwell quotes an anguished passage from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. After this, for the sixth and final variation, voice and horn are heard together for the first time in a coda that represents the voice of God, ‘One who … Was once a child who among beasts has lain’.

Edith Sitwell was delighted with the Canticle and for the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival Britten devised a sequence of Edith Sitwell poems in which she could take part as speaker, some of the poems to be spoken and others sung. Into this he incorporated Canticle III and also in May 1956 wrote three new songs, two for tenor, horn and piano, and one without the horn. Under the title The Heart of the Matter, the programme was first performed in Aldeburgh parish Church on 21st June by Pears, Brain and Britten, with Edith Sitwell herself as the speaker. The three songs were not performed again in Britten’s lifetime but were revived in 1983 by Sir Peter Pears, with a revised sequence of readings. The additional musical settings, a prologue and epilogue incorporating a motivic Fanfare, and the song ‘We are the darkness in the heat of day’ are much simpler and less chromatic in content than the Canticle.

Some seventeen years passed before Britten returned to the Canticle form. Canticle IV sets T.S. Eliot’s well-known poem The Journey of the Magi for three voices, counter-tenor, tenor, and baritone, and piano, and was composed in January 1971. It is dedicated to its first singers, James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk, who with Britten gave the première at Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 26th June during the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival. The poem tells of the doubts and frustrations suffered by the three kings in search of the child Christ, as recalled by one of them years afterwards, in doubt as to the significance of their journey and what they had really seen. Here again, as in Canticle II, the different solo voices often blend into one to enact the part of the poem’s narrator. The work is structured as a kind of rondo, and with exploration of the kind of heterophony, the various voices released from a common beat and metre, that Britten had begun exploring in his Church Parables. At the climax of the work the piano part quotes the plainchant melody Magi videntes stellarum (The wise men beholding the star), the antiphon before the Magnificat at first Vespers for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Britten’s fifth and last Canticle takes another, much less familiar text from T.S. Eliot, whose poetry he found a powerful source of consolation in the illnesses of his last years. Canticle V, The Death of Saint Narcissus, was composed in July 1974 for Peter Pears and the harpist Osian Ellis, who gave the first performance at Schloss Elmau, Upper Bavaria, in January 1975. Britten had just undergone a serious heart operation: this was the first music he wrote on his recovery. He dedicated the work to the memory of William Plomer, the librettist of Gloriana and the Church Parables. ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus’ is an early, allusive poem of Eliot’s and had only just been published in a collection of his juvenilia. The Catholic Church recognizes two actual saints named Narcissus, one a fourth-century soldier and the other a third-century Bishop of Jerusalem, but the figure in Eliot’s poem has elements of Saint Sebastian (martyred by having arrows shot into him) and the Narcissus of pagan legend, trapped in self-absorption. The poem contains fairly explicit erotic and masochistic elements, which come to a catharsis in the final stanza. In common with most of the works of Britten’s last years, the musical language of this setting is spare and economical, the vocal line elegantly expressive in the vein of Death in Venice, the major work written immediately before it. But it also falls to the voice to articulate the whole work as if along a single line, while the harp does not underpin or direct the harmony so much as provide a range of abrupt and vivid dramatic gestures in consonance with the wide emotional range spanned. Formally speaking its single movement creates a pattern of exposition, development, episode and intensified recapitulation, this final section also becoming the terrifying climax of the whole work.

Malcolm MacDonald


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