Hyperion Records

Sacred and Profane, Op 91
Winter 1974/5; SSATB; written for Peter Pears' Wilbye Consort who gave the first performance at Snape Maltings on 14 September 1975
author of text
various medieval sources

'Britten: Sacred and Profane & other choral works' (CDH55438)
Britten: Sacred and Profane & other choral works
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55438  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: St Godric's Hymn  Sainte Marye Virgine
Track 21 on CDH55438 [1'32] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: I mon waxe wod  Foweles in the frith
Track 22 on CDH55438 [0'35] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 3: Lenten is come
Track 23 on CDH55438 [2'06] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 4: The long night  Mirie it is, while sumer ilast
Track 24 on CDH55438 [1'13] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 5: Yif ic of luve can  Whanne ic se on Rode
Movement 6: Carol  Maiden in the mor lay
Track 26 on CDH55438 [1'37] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 7: Ye that pasen by
Track 27 on CDH55438 [1'56] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 8: A death  Wanne mine eyhnen misten
Track 28 on CDH55438 [2'34] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Sacred and Profane, Op 91
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!’).

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2001

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