Conductor Edward Higginbottom has recorded Britten’s sacred choral music for the Choir of New College Oxford label Novum. In the course of our interview he spoke about the challenges of conducting and performing Britten, and cast his mind back to the premiere of the War Requiem, just over 50 years ago.
Can you remember your first encounter with Britten?
“I think it was when I was a young teenage organist at St. Mary’s Warwick, and we used to do the Jubilate In C Major. I remember playing that. Subsequently I got to grips with more of his stuff.”
Was it your plan for this release on your own label to coincide with the Britten centenary?
“Yes, it was all part of the calculation to do something like this to match it. A lot of Benjamin Britten is out there, but this is the first recording by a choir of men and boys that goes across the range of sacred music. I think it is a guise that Britten himself would have recognised and interpreted. I like the Finzi Singers recordings on Chandos, but those are performed with men and women rather than men and boys.”
Do the younger members of the choir all enjoy the music?
“Yes, but I wouldn’t say it’s a generational thing. The music of Britten is very attractive, I think, and the boys like singing the Missa Brevis and A Ceremony Of Carols in particular. It’s alive, engaging music, not too difficult but demanding to a degree. With the more difficult pieces like the Hymn to St Cecilia, they rise to the challenge.”
Your recording includes the Hymn To The Virgin, one of Britten’s earliest published works. How does it give an idea of future stylistic developments, if indeed it does at all?
“It begins something of a trajectory, I think. It’s a teenage work, whereas A Boy Was Born, a student work, is a concert piece. It’s extraordinary, how accomplished that work is. The Jubilate In E flat major is just a bit later, and then there are those Hopkins settings for A.M.D.G. which are really rather curious, and not out of the same world. I’m not sure about Britten going through a crisis here, but he certainly recovers his step for the Hymn to St. Cecilia and A Ceremony Of Carols, where he had really sorted out how to deal with voices.”
Does Britten use a range of styles in his sacred music?
“You sense that the Hymn To St. Peter is experimental, while the Missa Brevis is clever and interesting. I wouldn’t call it unevenness in his work, more a moving around. A fascinating aspect is the way he is challenging the orthodoxies of writing for the church. His music is totally unlike that of Herbert Howells, for instance. It is not ‘churchy’ at all, so I think there he was trying to brush cobwebs aside, to do something exciting and novel, but to be himself too. At times it feels like he is making a gentle parody, and the Venite In C, published later in the 1980s, seems to do that with Anglican chant. I think he’s gently poking fun at how Anglican Church music can be at times. On another level you can read it straight, and if you do that it’s rather beautiful. I think there was a tendency for Britten to keep his distance from church traditions.”
Would you say Britten’s word settings are particularly vivid, thinking of a piece like Rejoice In The Lamb?
“He has a special way with words. It’s quite close to Purcell, and he gets through an enormous amount of text. In some of the settings, and you’ll see with the booklet with this release, there is page after page of text. He’s not a person who lingers, he often sets text at real time, and he doesn’t do repetition. In the Scherzo of the Hymn To St. Peter, where the choir sing “I Have No Shadow To Run”, that comes back, but a lot of the time he is trying to find one musical response that leads to another musical response. One criticism you could level at him is that the music moves on rather quickly. Rejoice In The Lamb is a good example of that. He could get more out of his material I think, but he doesn’t, and that’s part of the way he does the settings.”
Are there any special qualities needed to be a Britten conductor?
“I can’t think there’s an enormous amount to get right outside of any sort of music. His scores are prescriptive, though sometimes I think his metronome marks are too fast – the result of sitting at the piano rather than performing it. We tackle them a bit slower at times. It’s fully notated but you still have to leave room for your own imagination with phrasing. I think that is legitimate, and our hope is that if he were alive to hear it then he would approve. The key I think is to be very vital and to have some panache, not to be too ‘churchy’ or introspective.”
Other than the choral music, what is your favourite Britten piece?
“I think the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is fantastic, and Peter Grimes, too. I was there at the War Requiem first performance, turning the pages for the organist. It was almost overwhelming, it stretched everybody a lot, and the local choral societies were struggling! The world only knew what it was like later, when Britten’s own recording was presented. It’s a hugely popular piece. I love Winter Words, too, and the String Quartets.”
How do you sum up what Britten means to you?
“I could rephrase that, and say why would I want to perform or listen to it? I think he’s a wonderful craftsman; there is fantastic skill in his writing. When that coincides with an emotional current it is overwhelming stuff. It doesn’t always happen – there are times when the calculation takes over – but other times it is right. There is sometimes a sense of repression and vulnerability as a person, and a reserve – he was a complex human being and an interesting case to analyse.
An example of that is where Robert Tear once imitated him genially and Britten took offence, and never used him again, so that shows he was a touchy individual. At Aldeburgh you were sometimes in the court and sometimes outside, and you didn’t know what you’d done. That edgy side can sometimes emerge in the music, and there is some posturing too, in a way. But a piece like Peter Grimes is so true to him, and so well crafted.”