Listening to Britten – A Hymn to the Virgin


Detail of window, Wimborne Minster ((c) Ben Hogwood)

A Hymn To The Virgin – anthem for mixed voices (SATB double chorus), unaccompanied (9 July 1930, Britten aged 16)

Dedication Not known
Text Anon
Language English
Duration 3’00”

Background and Critical Reception

While Britten’s chamber music was pushing at the boundaries of atonality, his choral music bore a more resolutely traditional musical language. A Hymn To The Virgin was composed in a single day, during an extended stay in Gresham’s sick bay – but little did Britten know that even then he was writing music that would be sung at his own funeral, some 46 years later! The hymn was published in 1934, by which time Britten had transposed the music down a semitone to make it easier to sing.

John Bridcut describes it as a ‘jewel of an anthem…tiny and apparently simple, but perfect’. Michael Kennedy also hits the nail on the head, describing the Hymn as ‘a gentle and fluent work belonging very strongly to the tradition of English religious art but with a freshness that has never faded’.

Thoughts

This may be one of Britten’s more conventional early works, but it has a wonderful sense of calm. The polyphonic workings are beautiful when the music opens out, and the relative lack of bass gives the music a very wide open, airy quality. What Britten does extremely well, however, is to make this music resonate with purity and simplicity.

The proportions are ideal, if the Hymn is taken at the right speed. When listened to in the context of a busy or noisy day, this can prove to be a wonderful time out, three of the best minutes you could spend in the company of Britten.

Recordings used

This is the first Britten piece in the listening where there are many versions available – and I have used the following four:

Holst Singers / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom (Novum)
Winchester Cathedral Choir / David Hill (EMI)
London Symphony Chorus / George Malcolm (Eloquence)

The differences between the versions are striking. An expansive reading such as Malcolm’s, rich in vibrato and indulgent in the time taken in and between phrases, is almost a whole minute longer than the Holst Singers under Stephen Layton, whose purity of expression and line feels much more chaste and appropriate.

Both Willcocks and the new recording from the Choir of New College Oxford, available on their new label, fall somewhere in between and are excellent, with the Oxford singers speeding up slightly in the central verse.

Edward Higginbottom, director of the New College Choir, talks to me about their recording here

Spotify
The version by the New College Choir and Edward Higginbottom can be found here

Also written in 1930: Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms

Next up: Elegy for solo viola

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One Response to Listening to Britten – A Hymn to the Virgin

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – A Hymn of St Columba | Good Morning Britten

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