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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

The Canticles

Ben Johnson (tenor), James Baillieu (piano)
Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2012
Maida Vale Studio 2, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Tony Sellors
Engineered by Simon Hancock
Release date: February 2013
Total duration: 55 minutes 59 seconds


'The supporting performers are well chosen. Abraham and lsaac opens with Johnson and countertenor Christopher Ainslie, judiciously placed by the technicians, making a hauntingly other-worldly effect as the voice of God. Benedict Nelson blends well with the two of them in Canticle IV. The recording keeps James Baillieu's tellingly characterised accompaniments to the fore, as it does solo horn and harp, both excellent. Recordings with Peter Pears remain the benchmark, as ever.  … this new release from Signum Classics is a contender well worth hearing' (Gramophone)

'One of the more interesting of the tide of Britten centenary tributes, The Canticles features the five vocal settings composed at various points between 1947 and 1974, in which the ostensible religious themes disguise more secular interests—the barely veiled homoeroticism of Francis Quarles' seventeenth-century adoration of Christ in 'Canticle I', the allegorical linking of Blitz and Crucifixion in the Edith Sitwell powem used for 'Canticle III' etc. Set to piano parts occasionally reflecting the influence of the French Romantics, the most intriguing realisations are those on which tenor Ben Johnson is joined by other voices—with baritone and countertenor as the three Magi in 'Canticle IV', and most sublimely, paired with countertenor for the Abraham and Isaac story of 'Canticle II'' (The Independent)

'There's nothing precious or pained about Ben Johnson's tenor in his admirable recording of the five Canticles. The tone is sturdy, open and direct' (The Times)

Benjamin Britten is a composer who, since my earliest days of study, has been (and I hope will continue to be) a large part of my life. I was fortunate to have Dr Neil Mackie as my first teacher at the Royal College of Music. At 18 I was whipped up into Neil’s enthusiasm for all music. But it is particularly his close relationship to the music of Britten (Neil was a pupil and close friend of Peter Pears) that opened the door to Britten’s musical and personal world.

I suggested the Canticles to the BBC because I felt there could be no greater summary of Britten’s work than these five, relatively small pieces. They span the entirety of his mature life as a composer (1947-1974) and present to performer and listener alike much more than any single song or cycle. Each is deep with meaning or subversion, a trademark of Britten’s music to a modern audience. In their very performance they glide through such variety of style that it makes them wonderfully difficult to categorise. They are song, opera, cantata and chamber music, and so they correspond with the most delicate of intimacy and to the most effective of grand gesture.

In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter points out the close links between the Canticles and Britten’s operas. This answers in part their difference from the ‘usual’ song repertoire: their religious flavour (a stronger taste in some than others) mixed with the circumstances of their composition make for a unique strand in Britten’s output.

Written for the memorial service of Dick Sheppard, Canticle I was first heard in Central Hall, Westminster on 1 November 1947. Sheppard was Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields and was one of the founders of the Peace Pledge Union, to which both Britten and Pears belonged. A devout Anglican, Francis Quarles (1592-1644) wrote almost exclusively religious poetry, possibly influenced, as Graham Johnson points out, by John Donne, who was 20 years Quarles senior. Thus it is easy enough to understand Britten’s choice of religious text at a first glance. My beloved is mine is a meditation on the religious ecstasy of man’s relationship to God, influenced by Solomon’s Song of Songs (or Canticum canticorum, which Quarles abbreviates to ‘Canticles’). Britten’s decision to set it proved his boldest move to date in writing for Pears: how much about homosexuality the Canticle is or isn’t has sparked much debate. But the point here is that Britten is able to weave a masterpiece out of many coloured threads. As Graham Johnson puts it:

“Here Britten’s cloak is neither the Italian language [referring to the Michelangelo Sonnets Britten set for Pears] or the Bible, but the earlier conventions of English literature, and the use of passionate homoerotic metaphor in high-minded metaphysical poetry. Britten’s use of this rather Anglican ambiguity for his own purposes (and these include both an honouring of Dick Sheppard’s memory, and a reaffirmation of his love for Pears) is the type of subversive masterstroke that this composer carried off time and again.” (Britten, Voice and Piano, Guildhall School of Music and Drama: Ashgate, 2003)

Carpenter sees the Canticle as an epilogue to the opera Albert Herring—Albert’s loss of anxiety matching Britten’s in his decision to choose Quarles’ text. However, I cannot see Albert singing this Canticle. The work marks a step forward for Britten away from the world of Herring. It finds Britten, more so than in his operas or other vocal music, speaking as himself, more directly than before.

Canticle II was first performed in Nottingham in January 1952. Again it was written for Peter Pears but this time to be joined by the contralto Kathleen Ferrier. She had created the role of Lucretia for the English Opera Group and the work provided a concert piece for the group’s tours around the country. Its link to the recently finished Billy Budd is clear to see. Hermann Melville quotes ‘Abraham and Isaac’ in his novella when referring to Budd’s death sentence. Britten must have been aware of this and so finding a dramatisation of the story in A.W. Pollard’s edition of the English Miracle Plays, he went on to create a ‘naive little piece’ (his words in a letter to Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy).

It is far from naive. Britten the operatic composer is much at work in this Canticle. The scope of the drama is vast, and in 15 minutes worth of music he is able to convey the entire palette of emotion you might find in a verismo opera. Yet it is with simple, ingenious devices that Britten achieves this. He creates the voice of God with not one but two singers combined, and at a pitch that creates an eerie, otherworldly sound.’ His knowledge of singing technique is present when the tenor breaks out from the opening recitative; giving Abraham the bright vowel of ‘My God’ to emerge from the darker ‘befall’ of the alto. Only a minute in and Britten has us hooked into the world of this Canticle. The effect of this work on an audience is one that I cannot equate to any other concert piece that I perform. It is also a fitting end to the ‘first half’ of the Canticle ‘cycle’. For Britten was to move yet again to somewhere entirely new for each of the remaining works.

The work that changes the tone of Britten’s Canticles is the third, Still Falls the Rain. In fact it is Britten’s fascination with the twelve-tone system that is largely behind the musical world of this piece. It may have been the name alone of Edith Sitwell’s collection of poetry—The Canticle of the Rose—that attracted Britten to search for inspiration for a new work. Sitwell’s Still Falls the Rain is a hard-hitting, religious reflection on the horrors of the Second World War. But Britten’s decision was also bound up with his reaction to the tragic suicide of Noel Mewton-Wood.

John Amis asked Britten to write a work for a memorial concert for Mewton-Wood, who at 31 had taken prussic acid and killed himself. A virtuoso pianist (he spent time studying with Artur Schnabel), Mewton-Wood had accompanied Peter Pears and performed at Aldeburgh. According to Amis, the young pianist could not cope with the death of his lover and may have even blamed himself. The suicide made quite an impact on Britten; he wrote in a letter to Sitwell that in her poem he found “something very right for the poor boy”.

This work also follows on from an opera. Canticle III was written three months after the first performance of The Turn of the Screw. Like the opera, it is composed as a set of theme and variations. Britten set the poem for tenor, horn and piano and Dennis Brain joined Britten and Pears for the first performance. It is an incredibly moving memorial. The work is far from ‘easy listening’ yet Britten’s ability to set difficult text in such an engaging way cannot but grip the listener. This is surely thanks to the skills of Peter Pears—so excellent was he in delivering the most obscure poetry or libretto (Captain Vere’s long speeches spring to mind) that he could guide Britten as well as realise the composer’s ideas. There is a rare use of Sprechgesang (half spoken, half sung) for the two lines from ‘O Ile leape up to my God…’. Graham Johnson points out that this is probably a deliberate effect to separate these lines from Sitwell, as they are in fact a quote from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Britten again adopts two voices for the voice of God—this time tenor and horn—a peaceful close to an abstract work. That we feel a sense of catharsis at the end of the work is due to Britten’s genius in handling unfamiliar poetic imagery.

The final two Canticles are both settings of T. S. Eliot. They stand either side of Britten’s last operatic work, Death in Venice. In an unusual and highly original setting of ‘The Journey of the Magi’, Canticle IV calls for countertenor, tenor and baritone (the same vocal forces that the opera requires) to become the Magi; Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar. As with Death in Venice, James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk took the roles in the first performance. The close harmony of the writing, sounding high and thin (the baritone and tenor extend quietly to the realm of the countertenor) makes the listener feel the cold that they speak of. The uneasy, constantly changing time signatures convey perfectly the sense of the awkward and tough drudgery of the journey. The Magi are on their way to Bethlehem. Each character breaks off, sometimes a line or word being finished by another singer before returning to unison or harmony, giving the effect of the three old men remembering bits of information, complaints and grumblings, in real time.

Britten, in another inspired moment, uses the melody from the Antiphon Magi viderunt stellam (which comes before the Magnificat at the First Vespers for the Feast of Epiphany) to decorate the repeated ‘satisfactory’ of the Magi. Britten takes this conclusion of the three men and raises the stakes so as to leave a cloud over the whole of Christianity.

Donald Mitchell had said that Eliot was one of the few poets Britten could read after his heart operation. Britten’s illness had slowed him down considerably and ‘The Death of Narcissus’ proved to be one of his last works. Perhaps it is in Eliot’s “Dancer before God” that Britten sees a relation to Tadzio from his last opera, Death in Venice. Perhaps it is simply the rise and fall of this Narcissus/St Sebastian hybrid that attracted him. Innocence is lost, and finally he is destroyed.

The great wash of imagery in this poem might present a lesser composer with a problem. Britten’s first masterstroke is to set the poem for tenor and harp (Osian Ellis). This takes Canticle V out of the familiar world of the piano-accompanied song. The harp’s exotic sound proves perfect to create the lead character. The tenor part is difficult, but I find the most satisfying to sing. Britten’s lines are long. Full lungs are required to negotiate them. The pace matches Narcissus’ adventures and then calms again—death sounding familiar to birth. As the singer expires his last breath, the Canticle is over.

Ben Johnson © 2012

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