The Company of Heaven – Incidental music for speakers, soprano, tenor, chorus, timpani, organ and strings (8 August – 22 September 1937, Britten aged 23)
Part I – Before the Creation
1 Chaos (orchestra)
2 The morning stars (St Joseph the Hymographer) (choir, orchestra)
3a Jacob (choir, organ)
3b Elisha (choir, organ)
3c Hail, Mary! (soprano, choir, organ)
4 Christ the fair glory (Archbishop Rabanus Maurus, 9th century, tr Athelstan Riley) (soprano, tenor, choir, orchestra)
5 War in heaven (Revelation) (choir, orchestra)
Part III – Angels in Common Life and at our Death
6 Heaven is here (unidentified) (soprano, choir, orchestra)
7 A thousand, thousand gleaming fires (Emily Brontë) (tenor, orchestra)
8 Funeral march for a boy (orchestra)
9 Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the most High (Psalm 91, The Book of Common Prayer) (choir)
10 Lento maestoso (John Bunyan) (speaker, orchestra)
11 Ye watchers and ye holy ones (Athelstan Riley) (soprano, tenor, choir and orchestra)
Text Various, as above, compiled by R. Ellis Roberts
Background and Critical Reception
The Company of Heaven was commissioned by the religious affairs department of the BBC, whose request was for a dramatic piece to mark Michaelmas. Britten obliged with a sizable cantata depicting St Michael and the angels, along with prominent Old Testament figures who had ascended into heaven. Most notably he dramatised the fight between St Michael and Lucifer, which ends with the former throwing the latter out of heaven. The musical numbers are interspersed with longer sections of spoken text. This is another example of a late-1930s work left unpublished in Britten’s lifetime, finally made public in 1989.
The religious fervour of Britten’s childhood and upbringing had quelled rather when he came to set the music, so in a sense he was extolling from afar, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying some of the text, even though Humphrey Carpenter reports him scoring the music whilst listening to a Strauss Prom on the radio!
Britten’s soloists were one established collaborator, the soprano Sophie Wyss, and one new addition, a tenor named Peter Pears. Britten had recently made his acquaintance through friends, and new Pears as a tenor with the BBC Singers. Even at this stage the composer recognised that his was an unusual voice, and A thousand, thousand gleaming fires would become the first of many settings explicitly made for Pears.
For the big choral finale Britten draws on the hymn Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, set to the tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen, which appears to originate from Peter von Brachel in Cologne, 1723. Vaughan Williams also set the hymn.
There is some genuinely spine-tingling music in The Company Of Heaven, and provided you don’t mind the musical dips when the speech takes over, the listening experience is a fully rewarding one.
Britten begins with the depiction of Chaos, where he takes Haydn’s The Creation as his start point, the fire and brimstone including ominous timpani volleys.
The speech does disrupt the musical momentum initially, but it is important to stick with it – and The Morning Stars is the reward, a punchy number in awe of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Britten returns to this piece on several occasions for inspiration, nowhere more so than in the big finale, where he follows the same piece in the technique of changing his bass note just after the harmonic shifts, a very powerful expressive device. The key, E flat major, also inevitably draws a parallel with the euphoric beginning to Mahler’s Symphony no.8.
Yet the dramatic centrepiece of this piece is undoubtedly War In Heaven, where Britten lets loose a terrifying blend of sprechstimme male voices (half spoken, half sung), subterranean organ bass and rolling drums. It is a twisted evocation of the fight with Lucifer, and is an early harbinger of the struggles in the War Requiem.
Elsewhere there is another Mahlerian Funeral March and, to counter this, a thrilling evocation of the trumpets in heaven by multi-voiced violins, which builds towards the big, emphatic finish. Perhaps inevitably Britten shys away from a completely bombastic ending, pulling back to a thought-provoking and rather beautiful finish.
Britten’s affinity with a huge variety of text undoubtedly served him well in this piece, and while some of his music could be accused of being derivative, there is much here of genuine and very thrilling invention. It is firmly recommended to those looking for something a little different in the Britten output.
Peter Barkworth and Sheila Allen (narrators), Cathryn Pope (soprano), Dan Dressen (tenor), Christopher Herrick (organ), London Philharmonic Choir, English Chamber Orchestra / Philip Brunelle (Virgin Classics) – also available on Decca’s Britten: The Complete Works
The biggest challenge when recording this piece is surely maintaining the dramatic tension through the longer spoken word passages. This potential problem is addressed head on in the only available recording of The Company of Heaven, whose forces are conducted by Philip Brunelle. His passionate narrators Peter Barkworth and Sheila Allen are supported by a very strong vocal performance. Passages like Morning Stars fizz, while War In Heaven is genuinely disquieting and the final hymn a glorious release.
The Company Of Heaven is now available on Spotify, as part of EMI’s centenary collection of Britten choral works and works for children. It begins on disc 7 here
Also written in 1937: Vaughan Williams – Job: A Masque for Dancing
Next up: The sun shines down