Listening to Britten – Antiphon, Op.56b


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Antiphon, Op.56b for choir (SATB with optional solos) and organ (30 March 1956, Britten aged 42)

Dedication Written for the centenary of St Michael’s College, Tenbury
Text George Herbert
Language English
Duration 6′

Background and Critical Reception

Like the Hymn to St Peter, the first of this Op.56 two-parter, the Antiphon is written to celebrate the important anniversary of an institution, on this occasion St Michael’s College, Tenbury.

As its title indicates this is a piece that divides in to two, playing right into Britten’s hands so that the composer can make the most of his ability to create a spatial response to George Herbert’s text. To effect this he asks that the treble or soprano solos be sung ‘preferably in a gallery apart from the choir’.

Paul Spicer details Britten’s response, which reads, ‘Praise be the God of Love, Here below and here above’, and notes the wide pitch ranges written to illustrate this. Interestingly Harry Christophers, talking to this blog, said, ‘I find with works like the Antiphon and the Wedding Anthem that they are almost better to sing than they are to listen to’.

Thoughts

The Antiphon is a piece well worth seeking out, for it combines a celebration with some breathtaking textures, achieved as so often through the use of very simple performing techniques.

Unusually for Britten he writes at the extreme ends of the vocal register, and this featured some of his very lowest writing for choir – in the sacred music at least. The end is particularly magical, with the two vocal divisions exchanging chords in different keys before settling on a soft and consonant ‘F’. Before they do, the chords of the unheard conversation at the climax of Billy Budd come to mind. The solos are short but piercing, cutting through the texture with gorgeous clarity.

Antiphon was sung at Britten’s memorial service – and on this evidence it is easy to see why that would have been wholly appropriate and also deeply moving.

Recordings used

Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Steven Grahl (organ) (Novum)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers, Margaret Phillips (organ) (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer, Andrew Lumsden (organ) (Chandos)

Only three recordings of the Antiphon appear to be widely available, and as with the Hymn to St Peter they can be loosely divided into sacred and secular approaches.

Again I prefer the sacred – in this case Edward Higginbottom and the Choir of New College Oxford – but the two fine versions from The Sixteen and the Finzi Singers under Paul Spicer are equally valid.

Spotify

Edward Higginbottom conducts the choir of New College Oxford in their new recording here. Harry Christophers and the Sixteen can be heard here, while the Finzi Singers are conducted by Paul Spicer are here.

Also written in 1956: Barber – Summer Music for wind quintet

Next up: I will give my love an apple

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