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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
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
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
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
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
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.
Rejoice in the Lamb,
Festival Cantata for
treble, alto, tenor and bass soloists, choir and organ Text from Jubilate
Agno) by Christopher Smart
Rejoice in God, O ye
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
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
Let Daniel come
forth with a Lion, and praise God with all might through faith in Christ
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.
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
For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing
in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Fur this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and
serenity of soul.
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
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.
company of the Apostles, praise Thee.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
A Hymn to the Virgin
Of one that is so
fair and bright
Brighter than the
day is light,
Parens et puella:
I cry to thee,
thou see to me,
Lady, pray thy
Son for me,
That I may come
to thee, Maria!
All this world
Till our Lord was
De re genetrice.
With ave it went
Darkest night, and
comes the day
springeth out of thee.
Lady flow'r of
Rosa sine spina.
Thou bare Jesu,
Of all thou
bear'st the prize,
Lady Queen of paradise
Maid mild, mother
(Anonymous, c. 1300)
Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Gloria in excelsis
Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te.
tibi propter Magnam gloriam tllam.
Domine Deus, Rex
caelestis, Deus Parer omniporens.
unigenite Jesu Christe. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
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.
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.
Pleni sunt caeli
et terra gloria tua.
Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are
full of Thy glory. Hosanna in the highest.
venit in nominee Domini.
Blessed is he that
cometh in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the
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.
Hymn to St Peter, Op. 56a
Thou shalt make
them Princes over all the earth:
remember thy name, O Lord,
Thou shalt make
Instead of thy fathers, Sons are born
Therefore shall the people praise
Tu es Petrus, et
super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Alleluia.
Thou art Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church. Alleluia.
A Hymn of St Columba
prope est dies
dies irae et
In quo cessabit mulierum
amor et desiderium
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
Day of shadows and
King of kings and of
lords most high.
Thunder shall rend
that day apart,
Wonder amaze each
Anguish and pain and
Shall mark that day
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.
(Attributed to St.
Hymn to St Cecilia,
In a garden shady
this holy lady
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
organ to enlarge her prayer,
tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on
the Roman air.
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.
appear in visions
To all musicians,
appear and inspire:
Daughter, come down and startle
with immortal fire.
I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could
I am defeat.
When it knows it
Call now do
All you lived
No longer need it
For ally deed.
I shall never be
Different. Love me.
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
outworn image is released,
and Dread born
whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of
truths that never change:
fallen day, O re-arrange.
O dear white children
casual as birds,
Playing among the
So small beside
their large confusing words,
So gay against
the greater silences
things you did: O hang the head,
with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child,
weep, O weep away the stain,
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
on the shores of death.
O bless the
freedom that you never chose.
O trumpets that
unguarded children blow
fortress of their inner foe.
O wear your
tribulation like a rose.
appear ill visions
To all musicians,
appear and inspire.
daughter, come down and startle
(W .H. Auden)
The words for Hymn
to St Cecilia have been reproduced by kind permission of Faber and Faber.