Britten’s five Canticles
were composed across a period of some twenty-five years and each is concerned, to a varying extent, with religious themes. Their extended, multi-sectional form derives from the dramatic songs and Divine Hymns
of Purcell, many realizations of which Britten had made before writing his first Canticle
, 'My beloved is mine', in September 1947. It is a setting of a text by Francis Quarles, characteristic of much mystical poetry since The Song of Songs
in its quasi-erotic imagery, which is beautifully caught in Britten’s cantata-like setting – a sequence of barcarolle, recitative, scherzo and lento coda. Writing in 1952, Peter Pears was of the opinion that Canticle I
was ‘Britten’s finest piece of vocal music to date’ and it still compares well with almost anything he wrote later. Much of its quality derives from the expressive and sometimes highly melismatic freedom of vocal writing.
from notes by John Evans © 1986