Britten through the eyes of…Harry Christophers

Photo: Marco Borggreve

Harry Christophers CBE is the conductor and founder of The Sixteen, and is also Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston. With The Sixteen he has recorded a series of Britten choral works for CORO, the ensemble’s bespoke record label. The partnership was a key part of the Sacred Music series, first broadcast on BBC4 in 2011.

In this interview Harry talks about his encounters with Britten’s music both as chorister and conductor, what he learned from Peter Pears and Steuart Bedford and discusses how difficult – but not impossible! – Britten’s choral music is to perform.

Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?

Yes, it was A Ceremony of Carols when I was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, ages ago. It was very special. I remember that the choirmaster was Alan Wicks, and that it was a BBC broadcast from the Chapterhouse at the cathedral. The harpist was apparently legendary, but I’m talking a long time ago, probably in 1966. It was probably Osian Ellis or somebody of that character. It was a great experience.

After that, at secondary school I came across the Flower Songs, and it amazes me now how few people do them or know them. I do them with Genesis Sixteen, the spin-off group from the Sixteen that we have for vocal training, and out of the 44 singers I was with nobody had seen them or done them before. Even with The Sixteen, when we recorded them, only two singers had done them before. I always say that if any choir can master these songs then they can do anything, and when I say that I think of the lines in The Evening Primrose especially. The effects in Marsh Flowers, too, the notes aren’t that easy at all!

Does some of Britten’s secular choral music get overlooked, do you think – the Flower Songs and the Gloriana Dances, for example?

I think it does, there’s no doubt about that – it’s the same in the orchestral world I think, too, there are pieces that deserve to be better heard. There are a lot of pieces in his sacred output where I don’t think Britten is at his absolute best. The War Requiem, of course, is in a different class, but I find with works like the Antiphon and the Wedding Anthem that they are almost better to sing than they are to listen to. Some of it is not as good as the secular writing in my opinion.

The Flower Songs are amazing; there is just a brilliant understanding of the words! Everything Britten chose to write outside of the texts of the liturgy is interesting, because of the texts he chose. That’s what makes a piece like Rejoice In The Lamb stand out, because it’s obviously text that he wanted to set. The Jubilate is a bit workmanlike, and I think the Festival Te Deum is better than the other one. Sacred and Profane is never done, and for me that is incredible writing, a staggering piece and fiendishly difficult, going back to Medieval texts.

What made you want to be a conductor rather than a singer?

I didn’t enjoy singing any more. I felt I could do a better job getting the best out of people in front of me. When I gave up singing I did a lot of orchestral conducting as well, so in a sense I was taking vocal ideas to an orchestra and instrumental ones to singers.

How did you approach the recording of Britten’s choral works?

The idea with the Sixteen was to do the complete choral works of Britten, and I thought strongly that these should be the published ones. Some of the pieces – A.M.D.G. and The Company of Heaven – I don’t think he wanted published.

We found the most difficult piece of all is A Boy Was Born, which is fiendishly hard. That was the work Britten said he wanted to revisit, he said there were easier ways to achieve the effects that he does. The transition from the first variation into the second (Lullay, Jesu into Herod) and the whole final movement is very demanding, but it is very effective too, with a really clever use of the texts.

Did you ever sing in a performance of Friday Afternoons?

Sadly not, but we did do Noye’s Fludde at school, at Canterbury, and then when I left for the English Musical Theatre Company, which was the new name for the English Opera Group. Steuart Bedford and Colin Graham were running it, and they thought the English Opera Group had served its time, and they wanted to form a different group for younger singers. So I joined, and we did Death in Venice at Covent Garden, with Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk. The English Theatre Company was killed off by the Arts Council in 1982, but we did the parables with Colin Graham, and his stage direction, just after Britten had died.

In fact, the first special service I did was Britten’s memorial in Westminster Abbey (the service was held on 10 March 1977). I remember Pears arriving the night before, and they had the wrong year of death on the stone – they had to hastily change it from 1977 to 1976. He was so nervous in the Covent Garden performance of Death in Venice, but two years before Pears’ death we performed it again at the Aldeburgh Festival, and he gave an amazing performance.

I was very lucky to have influence from these masters! It had a big impact on me, and it meant that when I started recording I thought it was very important to take a notice of what Britten actually wrote. As an example, the Hymn to St Cecilia is always done faster than what Britten intended. I nearly got it right down to what he wanted in our recording, but not quite.

One discovery that I also made was The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, which was written for the Oflag Prisoner of War camp. The story is that Little Musgrave is caught ‘in flagrante’ with Lady Barnard, and it was written to give a smile to the prisoners. At school I remember having to do that, and I remember having to teach about 50 kids between the ages of 12 and 18 how to do it. I saw one or two people at a reunion a couple of years back, and they still remember doing it!

Do you think that illustrates how well Britten writes music for all ages?

Very much so. It is possible for young people to enjoy this music with no age barrier, because all adults would love it too. Even with the Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, it’s a great piece for adults! Another work that is not known as well as it should be, and fits into this category, is Saint Nicolas, and I think it isn’t heard as much because of the forces required to perform it. It’s a fantastic piece, an amazing work.

In your accompanying notes to the Britten recordings you speak of misguided interpretations in Britten. What would you say are the principal crimes?

It’s things like tempo markings really. I don’t want to be an anorak, but what I do think is that with Britten’s choral writing the good pieces are fantastic and do stand out. I love the hymns, but especially the Hymn to St Cecilia. I adore Rejoice In The Lamb, although it’s not a piece that comes easily to me, I think because of the organ. I did hear Imogen Holst’s orchestration of it though, and that brought the piece to life. The text is very unusual, and that can be a key thing.

With the Hymn to St Cecilia, Humphrey Carpenter goes into a lot of detail on the text in his biography of Britten, and you might not want to hear it again because of all the sexual overtones he says that Auden writes!
One other piece I do like is Advance Democracy; it’s great fun – a real showpiece that deserves to be better known.

Do you think Britten stands out among his fellow English composers as a writer of great choral music?

I don’t think we have a great tradition of really good people who write for the voice in England, but Britten is right up there at the very top. I would totally agree that he is the best composer for the voice since Purcell. His choice of texts is perfect, and his challenges for the voice, youth or adult, is ideal. It’s all challenges, from A Ceremony of Carols upwards, but it’s like riding a bike or learning to swim – it can be done.

I think the same applies to his orchestral writing, too. The Boyd Neel Orchestra found the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge very difficult to begin with, and in the Cello Symphony Britten also pushes the instruments to their limits. It is very hard but not impossible, although I have to say that with A Boy Was Born there are sections verging on the impossible. It is still performable though!

For me the element that sets Britten apart from Tippett is the choice of texts, for sometimes – but not always – Tippett’s choice of texts doesn’t always bring the best out of him.

Are there any Britten pieces you find difficult to listen to?

Not really, it’s all very listenable! I can be more critical when I’m just thinking of a program or concert, and some of the pieces possibly being more fun to sing than they are to listen to. I have to be careful on how I program things, and find sometimes that adding Purcell helps, to show the variety. With something like the Choral Dances from Gloriana you can add a harp, too, and contrast that with the unaccompanied hymns.

I do think Britten’s piano writing is exceptional too, and that every vocal line is possible, even when it’s complex, unlike John Tavener who will write pianissimo top Cs and bottom B flats. When he wrote A Ceremony Of Carols on his voyage back from America, Britten was very careful to take a harp manual across the Atlantic, and a book of Medieval carols from Nova Scotia. He was worried and not in the best humour, but he still wrote a joyous piece of music. You almost feel that when Britten was sad he wrote the most joyous music, and the other way around. The emotions are very profound.

Returning to the Sixteen finally, what has been the reaction to your Sacred Music series that ran on BBC4?

We still see people who get up at 3am to watch a repeat episode! We loved doing it, and the whole idea of not dumbing down the music was key, taking the pieces apart but not down to the lowest common denominator. We’ve left out a lot of people in the programmes, and Britten didn’t figure because we felt there had been enough done on his sacred music already. We learned a hell of a lot from doing it, and our audiences swelled greatly because of it, but we do hope to do more!

Harry Christophers’ biography can be found on The Sixteen website. The ensemble’s collected recordings of Britten choral works can be found here, while a guide to the episodes in Sacred Music, presented by Simon Russell Beale, can be found on the BBC website

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2 Responses to Britten through the eyes of…Harry Christophers

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Hymn to St Cecilia, Op.27 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Antiphon, Op.56b | Good Morning Britten

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