Listening to Britten – Rejoice in the Lamb, Op.30


Illustration from The Church Mice and the Ring, illustrated by Graham Oakley. (c) Graham Oakley

Rejoice in the Lamb, Op.30 – festival cantata for chorus (SATB), with treble, alto, tenor and bass solos, and organ (May – 17 July 1943, Britten aged 29)

Dedication For the Rev. Walter Hussey and the choir of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the consecration of their church, 21 September 1943
Text Christopher Smart
Language English
Duration 18′

1 Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues
2 For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey
3 For the mouse is a creature of great personal valour
4 For the flowers are great blessings
5 For I am under the same accusation
6 For H is a spirit

Audio

Clips from each section of the work, featuring the recording made by the Purcell Singers and conducted by the composer, with the organist George Malcolm. With thanks to Decca.

1 Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues

2 For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey

3 For the mouse is a creature of great personal valour

4 For the flowers are great blessings

5 For I am under the same accusation

6 For H is a spirit

Background and Critical Reception

The Reverend Walter Hussey encouraged close cooperation between the arts and the church wherever possible. In 1943 he approached William Walton with a commission for his church, St Matthew’s in Northampton. Walton turned down the request, so Hussey went to Britten, requesting ‘some music for our Jubilee celebrations next September’. In doing so he left the door wide open for the composer to use his imagination.

Britten remembered a work Auden had shown him in New York, Jubilate Agno – published in 1939 but written by the 18th century poet Christopher Smart. Much of it was written in a workhouse, as Smart had tragically been declared insane. The text extracted by Britten glorifies God through less conventional but highly personal means, the poet celebrating his cat and the mouse it is trying to kill, the letters of the alphabet, musical instruments and, in a troubling central section, declaring that ‘the watchman smites me with his staff…for I am in twelve HARDSHIPS, but he that was born of a virgin shall deliver me out of all’.

Britten’s setting was, in the words of Paul Spicer, ‘a kind of twentieth-century response to the seventeenth-century verse anthem’, heightened by his keen interest in the music of Purcell and a flourishing new friendship with the composer Michael Tippett. It is almost universally praised for its meticulous attention to detail, with Britten authors noting how it does not miss a trick or an opportunity to reflect Smart’s words in musical form, capturing the spirit and originality of the poet’s thoughts.

Thoughts

Rejoice in the Lamb is a wonderfully obtuse piece of music, eccentric in places but very deeply affecting in others. Despite its wildly differing sections it hangs together coherently, a rollercoaster of emotion somehow kept in check.

As with so much of Britten’s vocal work, those feelings stem completely from the text, which the composer brings to life in a virtuosic application of his own techniques. Among the many tools he employs are the scurrying organ part, used memorably to portray the cat, the mouse and their face-off. It is easy here to imagine Britten thinking of his beloved Tom and Jerry as he wrote the part, while the text itself, set for soloists at this point, is reverently treated.

The solemn moments are time set aside for brief introspection. These are moving asides where the poet is questioning his own sanity and mortality, and Britten responds in kind with thoughtful musical phrases. Indeed the central section briefly sinks into the depths of despair, looking skywards in a keen wish to escape life itself, before the work regroups for a soft but affirmative finish.

Interestingly, as an aside, the organ and choir become somewhat obsessed with a four note motif in the central section ‘For I am under the same accusation…’, and this motif is an exact transposition of D-S-C-H – the one Dmitri Shostakovich assigned himself. More than a coincidence?

Recordings used

Of the many versions available, the following were used:

Purcell Singers / Benjamin Britten, George Malcolm (organ) (Decca)
Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Steven Grahl (organ) (Novum)
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / Sir Philip Ledger, James Lancelot (organ) (EMI)
Temple Church Choir and Players / James Vivian, Ian le Grice (organ) (Signum Classics)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer, Andrew Lumsden (organ) (Chandos)
orchestral version – The Choir of Clare College, The Dmitri Ensemble / Graham Ross (Harmonia Mundi)

Philip Ledger’s recording uses timpani and percussion – which it seems was an option but not one that Britten readily endorsed. He did however ask Imogen Holst, the composer and his amanuensis, to orchestrate a version, and this has just been released on a disc of her choral works.It is a colourful arrangement in extremely good faith – and no doubt helped to pave the way for further collaborations between the two in preparing performing editions of Purcell and J.S.Bach.

Once again, though, Britten’s own version is the one to have, sharply responsive and, in George Malcolm, offering the best interpretation of the organ flourishes. The Temple Church Choir deserve a mention, too, for theirs is a wide-ranging account of depth and passion, and the Finzi Singers on Chandos show a wealth of different tones and colours.

Spotify

The following playlist groups together the versions made by Britten himself, Philip Ledger, Paul Spicer and a recording not currently available made by The Choir of King’s College Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

Also written in 1943: Vaughan Williams – Symphony no.5 in D major

Next up: The Rescue

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One Response to Listening to Britten – Rejoice in the Lamb, Op.30

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

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