Listening to Britten – Advance Democracy

Searchlights over London by T.B Meteyard, used courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Advance Democracy for unaccompanied chorus (14 – 29 November 1938, Britten aged 25)

Dedication not known
Text Randall Swingler
Language English
Duration 3′

Background and Critical Reception

When corresponding with his publisher Ralph Hawkes, Britten referred to this as his ‘co-op part song’. A light-hearted reference maybe, but the storm clouds were gathering, both Europe-wide and in Britten’s own musical life. His pacifism was becoming ever more urgent, and coupled with an almost obsessive need to set funeral marches – highlighted by Paul Kildea – the anti-war protocol within Britten and Auden’s circle was at its most intense.

The critics struggle to warm to this particular piece of anti-war sentiment, mind. Paul Kildea is one of many to pour scorn on the words. ‘Time to arise, Democracy, as the poem puts it – but arise for what? Gentle conversation? Polite national disagreements?’

According to Michael Kennedy, Britten’s game was already lost before he even started writing. ‘Even more expertise was needed to give any kind of musical credibility to a setting for unaccompanied chorus of Swingler’s dreadful doggerel in Advance Democracy’, he says.

Harry Christophers, in an interview for this blog, is one of very few to plead the case for the setting, although even this comes after the text is branded ‘embarrassing’ in the note for his own recording. He describes the piece as ‘great fun – a real showpiece that deserves to be better known’.


Britten’s setting elevates the text, that is certain – but even then it is relatively easy to see why Advance Democracy is not better known. It is a short march, one that takes a theme very similar in rhythm to that in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, and works with it a little obsessively.

There is a certain amount of patriotic fervour found in the ‘arise, democracy’ line, and ‘the power of marching feet’, but it feels ultimately empty, despite some spicy harmony towards the end. It did make me curious to hear the Pacifist March, but that is unlikely to happen since the full score of that is at large, and there are currently no recordings.

A strange piece, for sure – with far better representations of Britten railing against the evils of war still to come.

Recordings used

The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer (Chandos)

Both good versions, although Christophers gets a bit more bite from his singers, and the Finzi singers enjoy more of a continuous line.


The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, are here, while Paul Spicer and the Finzi Singers are “a href=””>here. Rather intriguingly the Sixteen chose the piece for a place on their Sounds Sublime compilation. With all respect that isn’t a word I would associate with this march!

Also written in 1938: Copland – Billy the Kid

Next up: Prelude on ‘They Walk Alone’

This entry was posted in Choral, English, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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