Te Deum in C major – treble solo, choir (SATB) and organ (11 July – 17 September 1934, Britten aged 20)
Dedication Maurice Vinden and the Choir of St Mark’s, N. Audley St, London
Text The Book Of Common Prayer
Background and Critical Reception
Like the Jubilate Deo in E flat, Britten wrote this anthem for the Choir of St Mark’s, Audley Street, which had supplied the boys for A boy was born. Although the Te Deum was in fact begun first, the Jubilate was finished earlier.
Paul Spicer, in his illuminating notes on the choral works for the Boosey website, thinks highly of this work, describing it as ‘the finest’ of Britten’s canticle settings. Edward Higginbottom also recognises its qualities in liturgical setting.
The Jubilate Deo listened to previously may have been a relatively ‘regulation’ work, but Britten rightly remained proud of this Te Deum. It grows from quiet beginnings in the purest of keys – C major, one of the composer’s most-used – to take on a most impressive stature, with wonderful writing for treble voices adding brightness to the top of the sound.
There is a strong sense of Britten taking the text on a journey, the composer responding keenly to the text through both voices and organ, although the organ is quite restrained at most points. There is a particularly fine section for solo treble that begins with the text ‘Thou art the king of glory’, the harmony changing to a radiant A major.
Britten himself was a little self conscious about references he thought he had made to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and though that may be true of the very opening itself, the musical language of this Te Deum leans further back towards Parry and Stanford, without getting fully inside their more classical approach. As Paul Spicer says, this is a work of substance within Britten’s output of music for the church.
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / Philip Ledger, James Lancelot (organ) (EMI)
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, but Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College Cambridge utilise the acoustic of King’s to their greater advantage. Edward Higginbottom, director of the New College Choir, talks to me about their recording of the sacred works here
Also written in 1934: Bartók – String Quartet no.5
Next up: May