BRITTEN: Rejoice in the Lamb / Hymn to St. Cecilia / Missa Brevis, Op. 63 (Naxos: 8.554791)
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Benjamin Britten could occasionally be disparaging about pre-twentiethcentury orchestral and operatic composition in the British Isles, but he alwaysmade a careful exception where choral music was concerned. In opera he regardedit as a life's ambition to establish a genre largely missing from his nativecountry, 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 musicalimagination could fail to be renewed and revitalised, and he left behind acorpus of work which has already embedded itself deeply into the choral andliturgical culture of all Anglophone countries. Choral music, he acknowledged,formed the very bedrock of British musical life in centuries past, frommadrigal groups to cathedral choirs, from small professional groups to largeamateur choral societies. The selection on this disc has been chosen torepresent the breadth and imagination of his musical genius in choral music.
The first work, Rejoice in the Lamb, was commissioned in 1943 byan indefatigable champion of new music for the Anglican church, the ReverendWalter Hussey, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of his church, StMatthew's, Northampton. Britten chose to set the then recently-published'Jubilate Agno', written by Christopher Smart in the mid-eighteenth centuryfrom his eyrie in a lunatic asylum. Even by Britten's own standards it was adaring choice which few could bring off with such dazzling aplomb.
This endearingly eccentric poem explores the wonder of creation from avariety of unusual perspectives - a pre-echo of contemporary magical realism -and allow, Britten a virtuoso display of word settings. A lyrical tenor solosees the wonder of God in flowers; in a plaintive treble solo the poetconsiders his cat Jeoffrey, whose morning worship consists of 'wreathing his body seven times round withelegant quickness'. In its many-faceted exploration of the wonder of God'screation, the work celebrates music's power to heal, its restorative innocenceand its capacity to bring unalloyed delight. His contemporaries may havedismissed Smart as insane, it seems to say, but there is a fundamental truthand sanity which we can all access through our childlike selves. The musicitself is possessed of radiant wit and childlike simplicity but is never lessthan thrilling, especially in the glorious catalogue of musical instrumentswhich makes up the climax to the work.
The Te Deum in C was written in 1934 for the choir of St Mark'sin London's North Audley Street, and was among the composer's very first to beaccepted for publication - albeit by Oxford University Press rather thanBritten's later publishers Boosey & Hawkes. It is in one sense at leastremarkably daring: in the opening pages it adheres steadfastly to a chord of Cmajor in the choral parts, and builds its musical interest without traditionaluse of harmonic progression, but by use of short motifs which are constantlyreworked. The haunting treble solowhich sets the individual against the chorus is a typically ingenious idea.
The Jubilate Deo, so often viewed as a companion work to the TeDeum in C, was actually penned 27 years later, in 1961. In fact it was thefirst fruit of a proposal from the Duke of Edinburgh that Britten should writesome music for St George's Chapel at Windsor. Nothing more of that idea seemsto 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 isdemonstrated in Antiphon, composed in 1956 to a George Herbert poem. Theantiphonaleffects whereby Angels reply to Men throughout the work culminate in a climaxwhere the two sides appear to move apart in ever more insistent discord beforeweaving their way back to final concord.
The earliest choral work in this collection is A Hymn to the Virgin, whichBritten 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. Thismacaronic device is re-used to touching effect in the final section of the Hymnto St Peter of 1955. Here a treble solo sings the text 'Tu es Petrus, etsuper hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam' against a quietly insistent,translating chorus of 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build myChurch...'. Britten's life-long affection for his own Peter Pears - so much thesecure rock of his own emotional life - seems to lend this passage its ownheart?¡-felt, deep resonance.
The Festival Te Deum was composed for a church in Swindon in 1944at a time when Britten was more fully occupied with scoring andorchestrating his most ambitious project to date, the opera Peter Grimes. Alwayskeen to seek simplicity in his music, he kept the first half of the piece inunison. As with the above-?¡mentioned Te Deum, Britten explores thefinal, pleadingly personal lines ('Let me never be confounded') by way of astark treble solo against a chorus.
The composition of the Missa Brevis in D was inspired by GeorgeMalcolm's work as choirmaster at London's Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral.
The sound world he developed with the boys there had a fresh, natural andslightly harder-edged vocal timbre, quite distinct from the smooth blendtypically sought at many Anglican cathedral choirs. Britten loved it. 'Thewhole choir sang with a brilliance and authority which was staggering,' hewrote to Malcolm after hearing them in early 1959. Penned within a few weeks inearly 1959, the Missa Brevis is a delightful work for three-part boys'voices. Its themes show a typically playful iconoclasm (for instance, the AgnusDei has an inescapable whiff of the cod horror movie about it), itsharmonies are joyously rich and exotic, while the rhythms pose a deliciouschallenge for musically-adept choristers, with seven-in-a-bar syncopations inthe Gloria.
Just as the Festival Te Deum was written even while workprogressed on Peter Grimes, so the Hymn of St Columba of 1962emerged during the creation of Britten's towering choral masterpiece WarRequiem. Unsurprising, then, that there are more than a few parallels inword and musical themes between this short work, using judgement day texts bythe sixth-?¡century saint, and the opening pages of the great Dies irae inWar Requiem.
Britten habitually paid homage to other composers by writing variationson their themes, his Frank Bridge Variations being just one example. Itsays much about his field of reference that he turned to the greatsixteenth-century Spanish composer in his Prelude and Fugue on a theme ofVittoria, 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 theUnited States in the early 1940s and completed during his return on the ship AxelJohnson in 1942. US customs officials confiscated his half-?¡completed scoreof the work just before his departure from America. Spurred on by thisunexpected loss, Britten re-wrote the first section entirely from memory andused the opportunity of escaping from the drab company on board to complete therest.