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Composing in the Church’s long shadow

07 June 2013

Although he had an equivocal relationship with the Church, Benjamin Britten wrote a surprising amount of sacred music. Ronald Corp looks at the influence of the Church on Britten, and the composer's musical legacy to the Church

BENJAMIN BRITTEN is perhaps best known for his operas and his works for solo voice, many of them written specifically for his life-long companion, the tenor Peter Pears.

His purely orchestral output is relatively small, and we might wish he had written more. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the Sinfonia da Requiem are significant works that have remained in the repertoire, and the three concertos (for piano, violin, and cello) crop up occasionally.

Chamber works figure quite prominently in his output, but perhaps do not get the regular performances that are accorded to the vocal pieces. The operas and song cycles feature in opera houses and concert halls, and his choral works are well established.

We do not immediately think of Britten as a composer of church music, however. Consequently, we might be surprised at how much he wrote for the Church - and even more surprised by how much of his music is informed by his churchgoing upbringing.

Dr John Evans, in his introduction to the diary entries in his book Journeying Boy: The diaries of the young Benjamin Britten 1928-38, makes the point that the society in which Britten was born was very much peopled by everyday characters such as those who feature in the opera Albert Herring rather than those we find in Peter Grimes.

Britten's mother, Edith, was at the heart of community life in his native Lowestoft, and was very much a doer of good. She was a regular worshipper at St John's, which was Low Church Evangelical. She would take the young Benjamin with her on Sundays, while his father was out visiting and spending time in the Royal Yacht Club.

It is almost certain that the moralistic and pacifist views that Britten espoused in later life were inculcated in his early churchgoing days, and in his time at Gresham's School.

It is sometimes difficult for us, these days, to understand the way in which liturgical and biblical texts were once part of everyone's experience, and how these texts resonated with composers and writers, but this is very apparent in Britten's output. The Church continued to inform works that he wrote throughout his career.


BRITTEN turned against religion, and stopped going to church in the 1930s. This was probably a result of his frustration with a Church that seemed to do little to stand up against the world events of the time, and also to be out of step with Britten's own personal situation: his homosexuality, and his relationship with Peter Pears.

All of this was exacerbated by his friendship with W. H. Auden, and his journey to the United States - both of which seemed to help confirm in him a desire to be a conservative (with a small "c"), and an honourable pillar of society, with a strong moral compass, and sense of duty, and meaningfulness.

His sister Beth wrote that he was a "strict person in the sense that he liked people to behave properly, dress conventionally, take their morals seriously. He was religious in the sense that he lived by a set of values." It is also no accident that he himself wrote that his music should be "useful", and for "everyone".

His self-restraint, and buttoned-upness stem from early years of comparative recklessness, on which he turned his back. This reserve manifests itself in his music, which is both "romantic", and open, yet cool and controlled.

The influence of the Church is to be found in abundance. There are a number of works written specifically for church performance, such as the Jubilate and Te Deum in C, a Venite, another Jubilate, a Festival Te Deum, the Hymn to the Virgin, composed when he was 15 years old, and the Hymn to St Columba.

His Missa Brevis, written for George Malcolm and the boys of Westminster Cathedral in 1959, displays, with all of the other works I have mentioned, a wonderfully fresh and new way of writing choral music for the Church. There is no whiff of Parry or Stanford, but instead a sense of melodic and harmonic invention, which makes these relatively modest works fresh and appealing.


HIS interest in medieval and Latin texts never left him, nor the passion for hymn tunes, and Gregorian chant. Hymn tunes play a vital part in Noye's Fludde and Saint Nicolas, where the audience is asked to join in, and plainsong melodies inform the Church Parables, Hymn to Saint Peter, and A Ceremony of Carols.

It is often remarked that Britten was inspired to use children's voices in his works by the innocence which their voices convey. But there is something even more meaningful going on - the children themselves have a vital part to play, and have equal footing with the adults.

In Saint Nicolas, the three pickled boys come to life by walking through the audience, although the rest of the work is static. In Noye's Fludde, the sons and daughters of Noye, and the gossips, have vocal parts as extended as those of Mr and Mrs Noye.

But there are also works that, at first sight, seem not to be overtly church-centred - such as Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for Walter Hussey, and St Matthew's, Northampton, in 1943. The eccentric verses selected from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart inspired Britten to compose picturesque musical episodes that make up a satisfying whole.

The Cantata Misericordium for soloists, choir, and strings, with piano and timpani, is a setting of the story of the Good Samaritan, told in Latin, and was composed for the centenary of the Red Cross in 1963. This is not a church work, as such, but shows Britten finding inspiration from the Bible.

A Boy Was Born is an early work, a most accomplished piece, by the 20-year-old composer - a set of variations on an original theme, and scored for an unaccompanied adult and children's choir. This is one of a series of Christmas pieces that Britten composed throughout his life. An ambition to write a Christmas work based on the Chester Mystery Plays lay unfulfilled at his death.


THE War Requiem is a towering masterpiece, and was written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1963. The juxtaposition of war poems (by Wilfred Owen), and Latin text was not new - Vaughan Williams had set Whitman's poetry and Latin text in his 1936 cantata Dona nobis pacem - but the synthesis in the Requiem is supremely telling. Owen and Britten speak the same language, and es- pouse the same views of "the pity of war".

So many elements come together in this work: the innocent treble voices singing from the distance, in Latin, and in mock Gregorian chant; the male solo voices that weave in and out as if in a disjointed song cycle; the soprano ringing out im-passioned music typical of an oratorio; and the chorus providing music in the great British choral tradition. It is a very potent mix.

The Church Parables look back to the Church of his earlier days, and a lost innocence. The simplicity of musical expression, and the stories themselves, suggest the old morality plays of medieval times. The series of Canticles also pick up religious themes (the second tells the story of Abraham and Isaac; the fourth is a setting of T. S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi; and the fifth the same poet's The death of St Narcissus).

Most controversially, the narrators in his opera The Rape of Lucretia draw a Christian moral from the Roman story. To Britten, this did not seem odd, or out of place, although audiences and critics have continued to be perplexed by the juxtaposition.

There are yet more little gems of church music, and some appear in unlikely places, including movements of Sacred and Profane, and even Friday Afternoons (A New Year Carol).

It is clear that the Church cast a large creative shadow over Britten's composing career. Although he never really returned to the Church, one of his last acts was to receive the sacrament.


The Revd Ronald Corp has just conducted Britten's Noye's Fludde in Newham, with the New London Orchestra, and in France with the Orchestre National de Lille, and will conduct the New London Children's Choir singing Friday Afternoons in Orford Church, as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, on 9 June. He is Assistant Priest of St Alban's, Holborn.

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