Listening to Britten – The World of the Spirit

Window in Liverpool Cathedral, (c) Ben Hogwood

The World of the Spirit – Radio score. Incidental music for speakers, soprano, contralto, tenor, bass, choir, orchestra and organ, made into a suite by Paul Hindmarsh in 1996 (April – 24 May 1938, Britten aged 24)

Part I – Prologue
1 Prelude (organ, orchestra)
2 O Thou that movest all (Mary Duclaux) (choir, orchestra)
3 The sun, the moon, the stars (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) (tenor, choir, orchestra)
4a This is my commandment (John 13, 14) (tenor, choir, orchestra)
4b With wide-embracing love (Emily Brontë) (soprano, contralto, choir, orchestra)

Part II – The Fruits of the Spirit
5 O life, o love, now undivided (Mary Duclaux) (soprano, contralto, choir, orchestra)
6a A voice within our souls hath spoken (contralto, tenor, bass, organ)
6b The fruit of the spirit is love (contralto, organ)
6c The fruit of the spirit is faith (bass, organ)
6d The fruit of the spirit is goodness (contralto, organ)
6e The fruit of the spirit is long-suffering’ (contralto, organ)
6f The fruit of the spirit is joy (contralto, tenor, bass, organ)
7 The spirit of the lord (Antiphon for Whit Sunday) (soprano, contralto, tenor, bass, organ, orchestra)

Part III – Epilogue
8 O knowing, glorious spirit! (Henry Vaughan) (soprano, flute, harp, violin)
9 The world is charged (Gerard Manley Hopkins) (soprano, choir, organ, orchestra)
10 Come, o creator spirit, come (tr Robert Bridges) (soprano, choir, organ, orchestra)

Text Various (see individual numbers), assembled by R. Ellis Roberts
Producer Val Gielguid
Duration 42′

Audio clips

Clips from each section of the work can be heard on Amazon

Background and Critical Reception

After the relative success of The Company of Heaven, Britten received another commission from the Religious Affairs department at the BBC. This was for a 45-minute sequence of readings and music based on the Holy Spirit, to tie in with Whit Sunday.

Again Britten had a choir and orchestra at his disposal, and to these he added four soloists and organ. Head of the soloists was his regular collaborator, the soprano Sophie Wyss. The piece was aired twice, in 1938 and 1939, but then disappeared without trace until Radio 3 revived Britten’s music for radio in 1995. This was in conjunction with a recording made by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox, and released on Chandos. Paul Hindmarsh is credited as providing adaptations of the music, but the extent of his editing is not revealed in the booklet notes for the release.

However, Philip Reed and Donald Mitchell give a comprehensive, section by section analysis of the piece, in which they draw attention to what at first seems like a bewildering array of texts, all linked to the Holy Spirit. On closer inspection they reveal Britten’s own preoccupations with ‘abhorrence of war, violence and intolerance, and the affirming of peace, justice and reconciliation’ – setting a blueprint for later works, both in the immediate future (Ballad of Heroes) and the far-off (the War Requiem).

Britten frames the music in the plainsong Veni creator spiritus, setting up a structure that became increasingly familiar in church-based works such as A Ceremony of Carols and the three church parables.


Britten’s music for The World of the Spirit does not carry the same dramatic thrust as that for The Company of Heaven. This is partly due to the text being a series of meditations with less of a running plot line, and that a lot of the music owes a clear debt to the more distant past. As a result this sounds like a hybrid of Germanic chorales and more Victorian church music, skilfully written and well set but not sticking in the memory for as long.

There are some striking moments, however. One of these is his first Tennyson setting, The sun, the moon, the stars, which uses an arpeggio pattern similar to one also deployed in the Piano Concerto. Perhaps most memorable of all, though, is the combination of soprano, flute, violin and harp that begins the epilogue, transforming Henry Vaughan’s O knowing, glorious spirit! into a rapt setting. Also notable is the use of plainchant, which has a serene quality in the introduction, but also a hidden power – and brings the work full circle beautifully at the end.

The music is certainly appropriate for celestial thought and meditation – but as a structure it is not as fully effective, and feels much ‘safer’ than Britten’s very best dramatic music.

Recordings used

Cormac Rigby, Hannah Gordon (speakers), Susan Chilcott (soprano), Martyn Hill (tenor), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Britten Singers, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

A fine recording that finds the right balance of contemplation and animation when called for. The choral singing is admirable, as are the soloists, particularly Chilcott and Pamela Helen Stephen.


The World of the Spirit is here, part of an album that includes King Arthur and An American Overture.

Also written in 1938: Howells – Hymnus Paradisi

Next up: Piano Concerto, Op.13

This entry was posted in Choir and orchestra, Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Orchestral, Radio score, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – The World of the Spirit

  1. Pingback: Working at the Coal Face – Britten on Film and Radio | Good Morning Britten

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