Listening to Britten – Jubilate Deo in E flat


Organ, Wimborne Minster ((c) Ben Hogwood)

Jubilate Deo in E flat major – anthem for chorus (SATB) and organ (8-10 August 1934, Britten aged 20)

Dedication Not known
Text Psalm 100 (The Book Of Common Prayer)
Language Latin
Duration 3’00”

Background and Critical Reception

After the publication of the Simple Symphony Britten hit an unusual phenomenon for him, that of a compositional block. Reading the various biographies it seems this was almost entirely due to the death of his father Robert, who passed away on 6 April 1934 from Hodgkin’s disease.

He had been ill for some time, but the effects on his son were understandably still great – and Britten’s response was to throw himself eagerly into sport and more leisurely pursuits. Writing music was, for the time, a difficult task.

Nonetheless there were some works in 1934 that made it through, and this Jubilate Deo, which was not performed until 1984, is one of them. As Edward Higginbottom highlights in his booklet notes for the New College Choir discs of the sacred music, it is not his most accomplished work, which probably explains the delay.

Thoughts

Hearing the Jubilate cold one would not fully suspect Britten’s circumstances. It is a celebratory work – as settings of this text inevitably are – but one that perhaps unexpectedly falls back on the solace of the English choral tradition, that of Parry and Stanford, a step back stylistically from the likes of A boy was born.

Maybe it does not help to know of Britten’s personal troubles, for the jubilation feels too hollow and polite – though the opening organ salvo does stick in the memory.

Recordings used

Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Stephen Grahl (organ) (Novum)
Westminster Cathedral Choir / David Hill, James O’Donnell (organ) (Hyperion)
Choir of St John’s College Cambridge / Christopher Robinson, Iain Farrington (organ) (Naxos)

All three versions used are strong performances. Edward Higginbottom, director of the New College Choir, talks to me about their recording of the sacred works here

Spotify
The version by the New College Choir and Edward Higginbottom can be found here, while the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge can be heard under the direction of Christopher Robinson here

Also written in 1934: Bartók – String Quartet no.5

Next up: Te Deum in C major

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