BRITTEN: Canticles Nos. 1-5 / The Heart of the Matter
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Canticles I-V The Heart of the Matter
The term 'canticle' usually refers to a hymn in scriptureor sometimes to certain psalms, but Benjamin Brittengave it a new meaning when he chose it as the title of asetting of a poem by the seventeenth-century Royalistpoet Francis Quarles, My Beloved is Mine, that hecomposed for high voice and piano in the first half ofSeptember 1947. Eventually he would write fiveCanticles, each for a slightly different instrumentation,though all of them feature the tenor voice and all werewritten with Peter Pears in mind. Britten saw them as anew form, though one with roots in the Divine Hymns ofPurcell. Each is in effect a miniature cantata with severalconstituent movements that also reflect elements ofsong-cycle, and each presents a religious (though notnecessary scriptural) text in a semi-dramatic context.
Probably, however, he chose 'Canticle' as the titleof My Beloved is Mine because Quarles's words are animpassioned reformulation of words from the Song ofSolomon, itself sometimes known as a Canticle in theAnglican Church. Canticle I was written for a memorialconcert for the tenth anniversary of the death of DickSheppard (1880-1937), the Christian minister andbroadcaster, pacifist and founder of the Peace PledgeUnion. Britten and Peter Pears gave the firstperformance at this concert, at Central Hall,Westminster, on 1st November 1947. The settingdivides into four spans or sections. The stream imageryof the poem's first two stanzas is echoed in the flowing,barcarolle-like piano writing. There follows a shortrecitative that leads to a lively scherzo in canon, thecanonic writing reinforcing the imagery of mutualdependency between the poet and the beloved. The finalstanzas are treated as a warm, slow-moving epilogue,with a reminiscence of the work's opening in the piano'spostlude.
Canticle II is a considerably more ambitious affair.
Entitled Abraham and Isaac, it pits tenor and alto voicesagainst one another in dramatic dialogue as it enacts theBiblical story, on a text taken from the Chester MiraclePlay Histories of Lot and Abraham. Composed inJanuary 1952, the work is dedicated to Kathleen Ferrierand Peter Pears, who gave the first performance thatmonth in Nottingham, with Britten at the piano. Here theeffect is almost of a miniature opera, with dramaticgestures and strongly-formed characters. The Voice ofGod is represented as something above and beyond theindividual by the device of having both singers deliverhis 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 arpeggiofigure, punctuating God's initial summons, proves thesource of most of the Canticle's motivic shapes. Afterthe climactic passage of Abraham's resolve to do God'swill by slaying his son, with Isaac's acquiescence in hisfate, the impending sacrifice is suddenly arrested by thereturn of God's E flat tonality, in which key the sereneepilogue of the work takes place, with God and manreconciled. Nine years later Britten re-used materialfrom this Canticle for his setting of Wilfred Owen'sbitter rewriting and reversal of the Abraham legend inthe War Requiem.
Canticle III is usually known as Still falls the Rain,though the full title is in fact Still falls the Rain - TheRaids, 1940, Night and Dawn. The text is a poem byEdith Sitwell which the composer especially admiredand the work, scored for tenor, horn and piano, wascomposed in November 1954. On 28th January 1955Peter Pears, Dennis Brain, and Britten gave the worldpremi?¿re at the Wigmore Hall, London, at a memorialconcert for Noel Mewton-Wood, the brilliant Australianpianist and champion of new music who had recentlycommitted suicide, and the Canticle is dedicated to hismemory. The work shows strong affinities with thechamber opera The Turn of the Screw, which Britten hadcompleted only a short time before. Canticle III is basedon a theme that uses all twelve chromatic pitches (butnot employed as a Schoenbergian twelve-note row)upon which the horn and piano enact six variations. Thevariations are separated by recitatives in which the tenordeclaims the stanzas of Sitwell's poem, each openingwith the words 'Still falls the rain'. These culminate in adaring passage of Sprechgesang (speech-song, showingthe influence of Schoenberg and Berg) when Sitwellquotes an anguished passage from Marlowe's DoctorFaustus. After this, for the sixth and final variation,voice and horn are heard together for the first time in acoda that represents the voice of God, 'One who ... Wasonce a child who among beasts has lain'.
Edith Sitwell was delighted with the Canticle andfor the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival Britten devised asequence of Edith Sitwell poems in which she could takepart as speaker, some of the poems to be spoken andothers sung. Into this he incorporated Canticle III andalso in May 1956 wrote three new songs, two for tenor,horn and piano, and one without the horn. Under the titleThe Heart of the Matter, the programme was firstperformed in Aldeburgh parish Church on 21st June byPears, Brain and Britten, with Edith Sitwell herself asthe speaker. The three songs were not performed againin Britten's lifetime but were revived in 1983 by SirPeter Pears, with a revised sequence of readings. Theadditional musical settings, a prologue and epilogueincorporating a motivic Fanfare, and the song 'We arethe darkness in the heat of day' are much simpler andless chromatic in content than the Canticle.
Some seventeen years passed before Brittenreturned to the Canticle form. Canticle IV sets T.S.
Eliot's well-known poem The Journey of the Magi forthree voices, counter-tenor, tenor, and baritone, andpiano, and was composed in January 1971. It isdedicated to its first singers, James Bowman, Peter Pearsand John Shirley-Quirk, who with Britten gave thepremi?¿re at Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 26th Juneduring the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival. The poem tells ofthe doubts and frustrations suffered by the three kings insearch of the child Christ, as recalled by one of themyears afterwards, in doubt as to the significance of theirjourney and what they had really seen. Here again, as inCanticle II, the different solo voices often blend into oneto enact the part of the poem's narrator. The work isstructured as a kind of rondo, and with exploration of thekind of heterophony, the various voices released from acommon beat and metre, that Britten had begunexploring in his Church Parables. At the climax of thework the piano part quotes the plainchant melody Magividentes stellarum (The wise men beholding the star),the antiphon before the Magnificat at first Vespers forthe Feast of the Epiphany.
Britten's fifth and last Canticle takes another, muchless familiar text from T.S. Eliot, whose poetry he founda powerful source of consolation in the illnesses of hislast years. Canticle V, The Death of Saint Narcissus, wascomposed in July 1974 for Peter Pears and the harpistOsian Ellis, who gave the first performance at SchlossElmau, Upper Bavaria, in January 1975. Britten had justundergone a serious heart operation: this was the firstmusic he wrote on his recovery. He dedicated the workto the memory of William Plomer, the librettist ofGloriana and the Church Parables. 'The Death of SaintNarcissus' is an early, allusive poem of Eliot's and hadonly just been published in a collection of his juvenilia.
The Catholic Church recognizes two actual saints namedNarcissus, one a fourth-century soldier and the other athird-century Bishop of Jerusalem, but the figure inEliot's poem has elements of Saint Sebastian (martyredby having arrows shot into him) and the Narcissus ofpagan legend, trapped in self-absorption. The poemcontains fairly explicit erotic and masochistic elements,which come to a catharsis in the final stan