Hymn to St Cecilia, Op.27 – for five-part chorus (SSATB) with solos, unaccompanied (ca July 1941 – 2 April 1942, Britten aged 28)
Dedication Elizabeth Mayer
Text W.H. Auden
Clips from the recording made by the London Symphony Chorus conducted by George Malcolm. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
Britten was born on St Cecilia’s day, so a Hymn to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was always likely to hold a special place in his compositional output. Add to that some extremely pertinent and personal words from W.H. Auden, written for Britten himself, and you have an extremely concentrated, autobiographical piece.
Remarkably, despite the confiscation of the original manuscript at New York customs, Britten recreated the score from scratch as he and Pears sailed to Liverpool on the MS Axel Johnson – and after some final modifications it was broadcast by the BBC on St Cecilia’s day itself in 1942 – Britten’s 29th birthday. It represented a return to choral music for the composer after a relatively lengthy absence of three years. In The Britten Companion, Anthony Milner thinks ‘his infrequent use of this medium may have stemmed from a desire to avoid the associations it carried from English part-songs and church music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’.
Humphrey Carpenter goes into great detail analysing the text for the meaning of Auden’s verse, and its implications on Britten. He looks at innuendo, instruction, praise and warning, but above all a deep-seated affection and concern for Britten’s development. This was a little overbearing on the part of the poet, but taken in good stead by the composer. The standout phrase, ‘O wear your tribulation like a rose’, is an urge – taken up by the composer – to celebrate his lost innocence. As Carpenter says, ‘the joyfulness in Britten’s sparkling setting…showed that he understood this message, and was already acting on it’.
Philip Brett, writing in the booklet notes for John Eliot Gardiner’s recording on Deutsche Grammophon, says the hymn ‘drew from Britten a response that shows him at his most balanced and lucid, a composer whose art by this time had reached a new understanding of what it is to be ‘classical’ rather than simply ‘neo-classical’, original in its themes and treatments, and true to its composer’s nature in exploring without fear the things of greatest concern to him as a complicated human being without ever seeming merely confessional.
Michael Kennedy praises the ‘extraordinary sense of spaciousness’, concluding ‘The whole exquisite setting is a hymn not so much to the sounds as to the soul of music’.
The Hymn to St Cecilia is as easy to love as it is to admire. Britten’s construction is incredibly intricate at times, the treble parts moving at a much greater speed than the other voices. The parts create a rhythmically complex framework, but the resultant sounds are of airy simplicity and beautiful restraint.
At times the text setting is radiant, nowhere more so than the refrains with which each of the three sections end, beautifully tailored up to a high E on each occasion, but with subtly varied harmonies. Britten responds to each of the instrumental references of the text with solo vocal passages, and these enhance the third and final section, but at all times the words can be clearly heard.
Throughout the hymn it is as if we are floating in the heavens, swooping down towards earth occasionally but then rising up again on the breeze – Britten’s music really is that wondrous and weightless. Small wonder that many Britten conductors count this among their favourites of the composer’s works.
There are many recorded versions of one of Britten’s most popular choral works, so using all of them was impossible. I have however made use of these:
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / David Willcocks (EMI)
Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom (Novum)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)
The Monteverdi Choir / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Deutsche Grammophon)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer (Chandos)
London Symphony Chorus / George Malcolm (Decca)
In his guide to Britten choral music for Boosey & Hawkes, Paul Spicer says ‘this is a challenging work and should not be undertaken lightly’, and with that in mind he builds an impressive version with the Finzi Singers.
Harry Christophers, in an interview for this blog, says that ‘it is always done faster than what Britten intended’, but interestingly his own interpretation is faster than Edward Higginbottom, who achieves an impressive grandeur.
Gardiner offers a typically incisive version, while Sir David Willcocks and the Kings College Cambridge Choir find that rapt purity in Britten’s writing. George Malcolm, conducting one of the first versions with the London Symphony Chorus, bids the choir use a little bit more vibrato but they sing beautifully together, and theirs is the one that captures the radiant timelessness of Britten’s writing best.
Some of the many versions of the Hymn to St Cecilia on Spotify can be found on this playlist. They include the versions by Edward Higginbottom, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Finzi Singers, the Choir of King’s College Cambridge and the recording sanctioned by Britten himself, with George Malcolm conducting the London Symphony Chorus.
Also written in 1942: Finzi – Let us garlands bring
Next up: If thou wilt ease thine heart