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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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