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Hyperion Records

CDH55438 - Britten: Sacred and Profane & other choral works
Sacred and Profane Love (c1515) by Titian (c1488-1576)
Galleria Borghese, Rome / Bridgeman Art Library, London
(Originally issued on CDA67140)

Recording details: April 2000
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: December 2012
DISCID: 860E641C
Total duration: 61 minutes 10 seconds


'The programme is delightful and the choir excellent … this has to be one of the strongest winners of the choral award in recent years' (Gramophone)

'Polyphony's brand of singing, clean as a whistle, rhythmically wonderfully alive, impeccably tuned and voiced, polished yet always fervent, is justly renowned, and on this disc it serves Britten's a capella choral music extremely well' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Musically impeccable, carefully wound and tuned, superbly balanced—a magnificent display of sheer beauty of choral sound' (American Record Guide)

'After hearing their latest CD of choral works by Britten, nothing will dissuade me from the conclusion that Polyphony under Stephen Layton is the best chamber choir in the country' (The Evening Standard)

'A valued possession … highly recommended' (Cathedral Music)

'Polyphony's exceptional energy, technical prowess and expressive flexibility make the most of every word and mood throughout this hour-long programme. This engrossing anthology of words and music comes highly recommended' (The Age, Melbourne)

Sacred and Profane & other choral works

2013 sees the centenary of Britten’s birth and a wide-ranging programme of concerts, operas and events, including performances of his choral music. This recording is the perfect introduction to this repertoire.

Included on this Gramophone Award-winning recording is the last choral work for professionals which Britten was to complete—Sacred and Profane—a collection of eight medieval lyrics for voices in five parts (SSATB). Also included is the Chorale after an old French Carol whose text is by W H Auden (a close friend of Britten’s). The Chorale’s text was part of an unachieved Christmas Oratorio on which Britten and Auden intended to collaborate.

The seven settings of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled A.M.D.G. were never performed in the composer’s lifetime and indeed had to wait until 1984 for their first performance.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Britten’s Five Flower Songs date from the spring of 1950 and were first performed privately on 23 July of that year at Dartington Hall, by a student choir conducted by Imogen Holst (who went on to become Britten’s amanuensis at Aldeburgh two years later). The songs were dedicated to Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst as a silver-wedding present, and appropriately celebrated the couple’s love of botany. The first performance was an outdoor affair mounted specially for the dedicatees, who owned Dartington and had contributed generously to the cost of setting up Britten’s English Opera Group three years before. By this stage in his career, Britten had already shown himself to be an accomplished setter of English pastoral poetry (notably in the Serenade of 1943), and his response to the texts by Herrick, Crabbe and Clare is economical, imaginative and assured. The Crabbe text, ‘Marsh flowers’, must have had a special appeal for the composer, since it had been Crabbe’s poetry that inspired him to return to Suffolk from the USA in 1942 to compose the opera Peter Grimes, based on Crabbe’s epic poem The borough. In the final flower song, ‘Ballad of green Broom’, Britten depicts a strummed lute accompaniment with a dexterity recalling the imitations of instrumental sonorities in his Hymn to St Cecilia, composed on his voyage home from America.

In spite of an astonishing technical facility which might have led a less discriminating composer astray, the young Britten exercised a rigorous policy of self-criticism which inevitably resulted in his withdrawing several of his early works from circulation soon after their composition. In some cases, most notably the American operetta Paul Bunyan (1941), the suppression was due to poorly received performances; but it is difficult to know exactly why Britten withdrew the seven settings of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled A.M.D.G., which were never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Sketched in August 1939, shortly after Britten’s arrival in the United States, the songs were originally intended for performance by Pears’s ‘Round Table Singers’ in London during November of that year. Possibly the decision to remain in the USA for several years influenced Britten to abandon the project before he had made a fair copy of the manuscript. It was only as recently as 1984 that A.M.D.G. was given its first performance, and the work was finally published in 1989 (without its original opus number—17—which had been reallocated to Paul Bunyan when Britten revised the operetta in 1976).

The initials ‘A.M.D.G.‘ stand for a famous motto of the Jesuits (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam—‘to the greater glory of God’), a sect which Hopkins had joined in his early twenties. Several of Hopkins’s poems, including O Deus, ego amo te (set by Britten), bear this motto in their manuscripts. (None of Hopkins’s poetry appeared in print before his death in 1889, and it was not until 1918 that Robert Bridges supervised the publication of the first collected edition.) Britten’s setting of Prayer I (‘Jesu that dost in Mary dwell’) indulges in a harmonic richness absent from some of the other more frugal settings, and is followed by Rosa mystica, a ternary waltz in which parallel thirds are set against a pedal point in ostinato rhythms. God’s grandeur contains fugal elements and graphic chromatic depiction of the words ‘bleared’ and ‘smeared’. The preoccupation of Prayer II (‘Thee, God, I come from, to thee go’) is simple octave doublings, and this directness is maintained in O Deus, ego amo te, where the music consists almost entirely of root-position major triads in unmeasured speech rhythms. The interval of a third returns to dominate the march-like setting of The soldier, and the final song (Heaven- Haven) sets one of Hopkins’s earliest poems to music of the utmost simplicity.

Britten wrote a considerable quantity of music during his school years, much of it ambitious and demonstrating a striking stylistic eclecticism. Much simpler in its understated poignancy is his well-known A Hymn to the Virgin, for double choir, composed on 9 July 1930 during an enforced spell in the sick-bay at Gresham’s School, Holt, when Britten was only sixteen years old. (This was his final year at school, and two months later he entered the Royal College of Music to study composition and piano.) In 1934 he deemed the piece worthy of publication but transposed the music down a semitone to make it more comfortable to sing and amended some of the harmonic progressions.

Britten’s opera Gloriana, Op 53, was first performed at a gala event at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 8 June 1953 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, in honour of whose coronation (which had taken place just six days before) the work had been composed. Although popular with the general public, who flocked enthusiastically to the early run of performances, the opera was harshly treated in the national press: critics who were already sceptical of the composer’s meteoric rise to fame were delighted that the audience at the gala premiere—largely made up of unmusical diplomats and other dignitaries—was baffled by the work, and offended by its warts-and-all portrayal of an ageing monarch. Always pathologically sensitive to criticism, Britten made little attempt to promote the opera after this unfortunate debacle and it only became established in the mainstream operatic repertory many years after his death. He nevertheless salvaged certain parts of the score and sanctioned their use in concert performances.

The set of six Choral dances from ‘Gloriana’ for unaccompanied chorus was first performed by the BBC Midland Chorus in a broadcast on 7 March 1954; the set was later rearranged to include tenor solo and harp obbligato for a performance to mark the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in 1967. The dances occur in the first scene of the opera’s second act, which portrays a colourful masque at Norwich’s Guildhall attended by Queen Elizabeth I during a royal progress. Britten had intended this scene to combine vivid pageantry with a homage to Elizabethan song and dance, but later felt that it impeded the dramatic flow of the opera as a whole, and in some later productions the entire scene was cut. The sequence begins with the appearance of the demigod Time, ‘lusty and blithe’, who is followed by his wife Concord. Her song is set to music made up entirely of concords, a deliberate witticism on Britten’s part. After Time and Concord have danced together, country girls, rustics and fishermen join in the celebrations before the concluding ‘Dance of homage’ to the visiting sovereign.

During his early career, Britten undertook occasional commissions from the BBC in order to supplement his longer-term concert and operatic work. In the autumn of 1944 he contributed music to a radio programme entitled A Poet’s Christmas, broadcast by the Home Service on Christmas Eve and also featuring music by Michael Tippett. Britten’s contribution was his Chorale after an old French Carol, with a text by W H Auden (who had been Britten’s close friend and collaborator in the period from 1936 to 1942). The Chorale’s text was part of an unachieved Christmas Oratorio on which Britten and Auden intended to collaborate. Britten’s setting is based on the hymn tune ‘Picardy’, known in France as ‘Romancero’; it lay unperformed for many years, but was resurrected in 1961 when Imogen Holst conducted its first airing since the original broadcast in 1944.

Sacred and Profane, Op 91, a collection of eight medieval lyrics for voices in five parts (SSATB), was written in the winter of 1974/75 for Peter Pears’s Wilbye Consort, who gave the first performance of the songs at Snape Maltings on 14 September 1975 (and subsequently recorded them in the following year, less than two months before Britten died). Sacred and Profane proved to be the last choral work for professionals which Britten was to complete, although he went on to compose the Welcome Ode for amateurs in 1976 and left the score of a Sitwell setting for choir and orchestra (Praise we great men) unfinished on his death. The medieval lyrics were conceived as a virtuoso display piece for the five solo voices which made up the Wilbye group, but Sacred and Profane has since occasionally been performed by full choirs in spite of the extraordinary vocal dexterity and suppleness required to bring off this highly demanding work in performance: the harmonic sophistication of Britten’s late style requires an impeccable sense of relative pitch difficult even for soloists to achieve, and almost impossible for any but the best choirs.

It would be misleading to regard Sacred and Profane as a song-cycle in the conventional sense since, although there are sporadic musical connections between the eight individual songs, the set does not display unified subject-matter. The composer’s main concern was to create a juxtaposition of secular and sacred typical of the medieval period. Britten chose not to modernize his texts, some of which date from as early as the twelfth century, so a summary of their content may prove helpful. The work begins with St Godric’s simple Hymn to the Virgin Mary, then briefly bewails man’s habitual insanity as a characteristic making him unique in the animal kingdom (‘I mon waxe wod’). ‘Lenten is come’ provides a detailed description of the sights and sounds of emerging springtime, but is immediately followed by a cold windy night signifying the drawing in of winter (‘The long night’). The fifth song, ‘Yif ic of luve can’, presents the intense feelings of love and sorrow inspired by a contemplation of Christ on the Cross. The mood switches abruptly to one of irreverent parody in the ensuing ‘Carol’, where a pastoral scene of a maiden lying on a moor is related in deliberately banal harmonic and rhythmic patterns. In ‘Ye that pasen by’, Christ makes an entreaty to passers-by to behold him on the Cross; and the set concludes with ‘A death’, in which a catalogue of the breakdown of bodily functions at the moment of death leads to a surprisingly dismissive conclusion (‘Of al this world ne give I it a pese!’).

Mervyn Cooke © 2001

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