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Not everybody can play an instrument, but nearly everyone can sing. And I’d like to argue that it is in Benjamin Britten’s melding of text and music that we find the deepest meaning and most consistent expression of his core beliefs, which were pacifist and deeply humanist rather than pious.
This was a practical-minded composer, writing music in a way that would allow as many people as possible to participate and perform, not just listen. Such focus on creation not just consumption of art by the amateur is a key attribute that distinguishes Britten from many of his art-music-writing peers.
He once said, “What matters to us now is that people want to use our music. For that, as I see it is our job. To be useful to the living.”
Britten wrote choral music in as many styles as there were occasions. He wrote choral music for children and for church use as well as for professional ensembles. His Ceremony of Carols is a particularly fine set of seasonal pieces, with gorgeous accompaniment for harp.
But in this installment of my appreciation of Britten through listening, I want to focus on the symphonic choral music, because, with the exception of the War Requiem, we hardly ever hear it outside the confines of music schools on this continent.
There’s a shorter work with similar intention to the War Requiem: Ballad of Heroes, a desperate plea for peace premiered on April 5, 1939, just five months before Germany invaded Poland, officially setting off World War II.
The whole first movement is in unison, with the choristers repeating the same notes in order to triple-underline the text. Then come portions from the sharply biting poem that gives the piece its title, written by Britten’s collaborators, W.H. Auden and Randall Swingler (for me, the verses also put words to some of Dmitri Shostakovich’s wartime musical rebukes):
It’s farewell to the drawing-room’s civilised cry,
The professor’s sensible whereto and why,
The frock-coated diplomat’s social aplomb,
Now matters are settled with gas and bomb.
The works for two pianos, the brilliant stories
Of reasonable giants and remarkable fairies,
The pictures, the ointments, the frangible wares
And the branches of olive are stored upstairs.
For the devil has broken parole and arisen,
He has dynamited his way out of prison,
Out of the well where his papa throws
The rebel angel, the outcast rose.
The behaving of man is a world of horror,
A sedentary Sodom and slick Gomorrah;
I must take charge of the liquid fire,
And storm the cities of human desire.
For it’s order and trumpet and anger and drum
And power and glory command you to come;
The fishes are silent deep in the sea,
The skies are lit up like a Christmas tree,
The star in the West shoots its warning cry:
‘Mankind is alive, but Mankind must die.’
So good-bye to the house with its wallpaper red,
Good-bye to the sheets on the warm double bed,
Good-bye to the beautiful birds on the wall,
It’s good-bye, dear heart, good-bye to you all.
Here is the Ballad of Heroes, Op. 14, as performed reasonably well by the students of the conservatory in Zwolle, Holland, under conductor Kees Stolwijk. The soloist can be either a soprano or tenor:
The Spring Symphony, which came in 1949 as the last of the rubble of World War II was being cleared away, is a wonderful celebration of rebirth, featuring adult as well as child choristers and three soloists.
This positively operatic work is difficult to sing. It was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation following the success of Peter Grimes. Despite its ultimate destination being Tanglewood, it had a warm-up premiere at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in July, 1949.
Despite this being a big piece of music in every sense of the word, the orchestral textures are completely transparent. But the adult choir has a lot of heavily lifting to do with its tight, sometimes dissonant harmonies. The children’s voices so clearly represent all aspects of spring.
There are four parts. The poetry comes courtesy of Spenser, Milton and W.H. Auden.
Here is Spring Symphony, Op. 44, with Britten himself conducting. The tenor is his partner, Peter Pears. The amazing contralto is Norma Procter (who I think is still alive):
Britten was commissioned to write something for the centenary of the Red Cross in 1963. The result was Cantata misericordium (Cantata of Mercy), Op. 69, a retelling of the tale of the Good Samaritan speaking to loving our neighbour, no matter who he or she might be. The accompaniment is for strings, harp, piano and percussion making for a lean, concentrated musical message.
This performance by Michigan State University students conducted by Sandra Snow is not amazing, but it does showcase again Britten’s remarkable way of conjuring heavy impact with light means:
I have a special affection for Britten’s sacred choral music, so I’m going to include a bit here, even though it’s not symphonic.
His Missa Brevis in D is a masterpiece for three sets of children’s voices and organ. Britten wrote the music in 1959 for the boys’ choir at Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London. Britten treats the organist’s hands and feet as extra voices in the choir, making for an especially rich musical texture.
The setting of Agnus Dei is particularly potent, I think, making it hard not to let out a long sigh after the boys finish singing “grant us peace.”
We end up right back to Britten the peace-wisher.
Here is a great recording of the Missa Brevis by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge under David Willcocks:
For a wealth of information about Benjamin Britten and his music, visit the Britten-Pears Foundation website, here.