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In May 1939 Britten departed with Pears for America in the wake of their poet friend W H Auden. The professional association between Auden and Britten dated back to 1936 and the GPO Film Unit. It had been a fruitful one and was to remain so a little longer, but by 1942 the conservative musician had become alienated from Auden’s brand of bohemianism, and was beginning to find the poet’s penchant for verbal gymnastics (much in evidence in Paul Bunyan for example) no longer to his taste. Britten began to feel rootless and increasingly homesick. At last, spurred on by the chance discovery of E M Forster’s article on the poet Crabbe in the Spring of 1942, he and Pears decided to return home.
The departure from America coincided with Britten’s final severance from Auden’s influence, but just before he left he began work on a setting of Auden’s three poems ‘A Song to St Cecilia’. These were dedicated to him (Britten’s birthday fell on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November), but he found himself unable to complete the work. The voyage, however, proved therapeutic; his creative imagination began to work again and the Hymn to St Cecilia was finished, as the score proclaims, ‘at sea’. So was A Ceremony of Carols. In a sense these two works represent an end and a new beginning. The Auden setting signifies the end of the appeal of tricksy rhyming, and puts a final closure to the charges of false sophistication and glib facility that had sometimes been levelled at Britten’s early work. The medieval carols on the other hand signal the return to something fundamentally English, deep rooted, familiar, and conservative in the best sense.
The Hymn to St Cecilia is set for five-part unaccompanied chorus. The three poems, ‘In a garden shady’, ‘I cannot grow’, and ‘O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall’ are linked by the litany
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
At certain junctures in his final poem Auden, like Dryden before him, refers to specific instruments—violin, flute, drum and trumpet—but Britten, having no orchestra, studiously avoids any temptation to imitate, inserting instead short isolated solo cadenzas which serve the dual purpose of suggesting an instrumental source while, more importantly, directing the listener’s attention to some of Auden’s most powerfully emotive lines. A repeat of the ‘Blessed Cecilia’ quatrain brings this concentrated and imaginative work to a close.
from notes by Kenneth Dommett © 1988
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