“Noel went more for a sense of lyricism, making points with delicacy and paying attention to details”
17 December 2017
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Jubilate Deo in E flat (1961) Text
Antiphon (1956) Text
Festival Te Deum (1944) Text
Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942) Text
Hymn to the Virgin (1930) Text
Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) Text
“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain: of strength and freedom.”
“Music for me is clarification; I try to clarify, to refine, to sensitize. ... My technique is to tear all the waste away; to achieve perfect clarity of expression, that is my aim.”
— Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten was born November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England. He began musical training with his mother, and soon studied piano and viola with private teachers. He wrote some compositions as a young child and began composing steadily around 1922. In 1927, he met the composer Frank Bridge and showed him a few of his compositions; Bridge would later be an important mentor.
In 1930, Britten entered the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied composition and won several prizes for his compositions, though he later claimed not to have learned much there. At a rehearsal for his 1933 composition, A Boy was Born, he met Peter Pears a tenor with the BBC Singers, with whom he began a lifelong personal and professional relationship. He met the poet W.H. Auden, another frequent collaborator an important influence, through work with BBC Radio and small theater groups in London.
From the spring of 1939 until March of 1942, Britten and Pears lived in the United States. (Britten, a conscientious objector, had been troubled by the approaching war.) He worked with Auden, who was already in the United States, creating the operetta Paul Bunyon and other works, and he met a number of American composers and musicians, including Serge Koussevitzky, who performed some of Britten’s music with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On a trip to California in 1941, Britten read about the work of poet George Crabbe, and found what would become his first major success, the opera Peter Grimes — commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. The opera, completed in 1945, would have its American premiere in 1946 at Tanglewood, with Leonard Bernstein conducting.
The 1940s were a productive time for Britten. Aboard ship on his return to England in 1942, he composed the Hymn to St. Cecilia and his Ceremony of Carols, also beginning work on Peter Grimes. Rejoice in the Lamb was written and first performed in 1943, the Festival Te Deum in 1944.
In 1957, Britten and Pears moved to the Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh — to the “Red House” — where they founded the Aldeburgh Festival and other ventures that both presented music and fostered the development of composers, musicians, and other artists. The Red House in Aldeburgh is now the home of the Britten-Pears Foundation.
Jubilate Deo in E flat (1961)
Psalm 100, from The Book of Common Prayer
O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands:
serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.
Be ye sure that the Lord he is God:
it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;
we are his children and the sheep of his pasture.
O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise;
be thankful unto him and speak good of his Name.
For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting,
and his truth endureth from generation to generation.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
Text by George Herbert (1593–1633)
Praised be the God of love, here below and here above;
Who hath dealt his mercies so, to his friend and to his foe,
That both grace and glorie tend us of old and us in th’end.
The great shepherd of the fold us did make, for us was sold.
He our foes in pieces brake; Him we touch and him we take.
Wherefore since that he is such, we adore and we do crouch.
Lord, thy praises should be more. We have none and we no store.
Praised be the God alone, who hath made of two folds one.
Festival Te Deum (1944)
From The Book of Common Prayer
We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee:
The Father of an infinite Majesty,
Thine honourable, true and only Son,
Also the Holy Ghost the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints in glory everlasting.
O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage.
Govern them and lift them up for ever.
Day by day we magnify thee, and we worship thy Name ever world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted let me never be confounded.
Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942)
Text by W. H. Auden (1907-73)
In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell's abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.
I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.
I shall never be
Different. Love me.
Blessed Cecilia ...
O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.
O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.
O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.
O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long winter of our intellectual will.
That what has been may never be again.
O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath
Of convalescents on the shores of death.
O bless the freedom that you never chose.
O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.
O wear your tribulation like a rose.
Blessed Cecilia ...
Hymn to the Virgin (1930)
Text anonymous, ca. 1300. Performed at Britten’s memorial service December 7, 1976
Of one that is so fair and bright
Velut maris stella, [As the star of the sea]
Brighter than the day is light,
Parens et puella: [Parent and daughter]
I cry to thee, thou see to me,
Lady, pray thy Son for me
Tam pia, [So holy]
That I may come to thee.
All this world was forlorn
Eva peccatrice, [Eve is sinful]
Till our Lord was y-born
De te genetrice. [according to the Mother]
With ave it went away
Darkest night, and comes the day
The well springeth out of thee.
Virtutis. [powerful virtue]
Lady, flow’r of ev’rything,
Rosa sine spina, [Rose without a thorn]
Thou bare Jesu, Heaven’s King,
Gratia divina: [Divine grace]
Of all thou bear’st the prize,
Lady, queen of paradise
Electa: [Chosen One]
Maid mild, mother es Effecta.
Rejoice in the Lamb (1943)
See notes on Christopher Smart and the text