Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac
, Op 51, followed in 1952, written for performance by Peter Pears, Kathleen Ferrier and Britten himself during a series of recitals which the three friends gave to raise funds for the English Opera Group. For his text, Britten turned not to the authorized version of the Bible, but to the lively dialogue and rich medieval language of the story as recounted in the Chester Miracle Plays. If Canticle I can be described as a miniature cantata, this second Canticle should surely be regarded as a miniature opera, such is the force of the drama as expressed through the music. The two human protagonists are naturally assigned to tenor and countertenor voices, but for the voice of God Britten hit on the idea of making the two voices sing together in homophony, thus producing a mysterious new timbre which could not have been obtained from a third solo singer. The Canticle is divided into several short sections, reflecting the progress of the drama as it unfolds up to the climactic intervention of God at the moment of sacrifice, the work ending with a hymn of thanksgiving.
from notes by Michael Short © 1992