Listening to Britten – Chorale after an old French carol


Culross Abbey window ((c) Ben Hogwood)

Chorale after an old French carol for chorus (SSAATTBB unaccompanied) (15 November 1944, Britten aged 30)

Dedication Not known
Text W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 4’45”

Audio

A clip of the version recorded by Polyphony and Stephen Layton. With thanks to Hyperion.

Background and Critical Reception

The Chorale after an old French carol is, like A Shepherd’s Carol, part of For The Time Being, Auden’s large-scale Christmas oratorio project. Auden wanted the entire text set to music, but Britten only used two excerpts for the BBC’s Poet’s Christmas, produced by Edward Sackville-West. This program also featured music by Tippett.

The ‘old French carol’ is Picardy, also known as Romancero. Mervyn Cooke’s booklet notes for the Polyphony recording on Hyperion detail how the piece remained unperformed for many years, but was revived in 1961 by Imogen Holst.

John Bridcut enjoys the ‘sustained arc of choral virtuosity’. In the second verse he notes how ‘the parts move at different speeds, producing a kaleidoscope of glistening sound’. Paul Spicer is more cautious in his Britten Choral Guide, labelling it a ‘slightly curious hybrid of a piece…it is not surprising that Britten did not encourage publication in his lifetime’.

Thoughts

Auden’s text, weighty and serious, is set out in a similar form to The Lord’s Prayer. Britten treats it as such, setting the piece in a serious G minor and giving the choir a thicker texture without harming the clarity of the words.

In mood this is not too dissimilar to Christ, the fair glory from The Company of Heaven, and though the words are not religious Britten ensures the setting is. There is even – whisper it – a hint of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in both key (also G minor / major) and mood. The writing for choir is expansive and assured, Auden’s text given real gravity, and in the central section of the piece the music soars upwards, the soprano line arched over the top.

Quite why Britten should suppress performance is not clear, for this is a deeply thoughtful piece of work. Maybe it was too poignant a reminder of his waning friendship with the poet?

Recordings used

Wilbye Consort / Peter Pears (Eloquence)
Holst Singers / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Elizabethan Singers / Louis Halsey (Eloquence)
Britten Singers / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Some fine performances here, and difficult to choose from a list where all give strong emotional input. However the version I enjoyed most was from the Britten Singers, conducted by Richard Hickox, matching the stillness of the outer sections with the more animated centre, where the sopranos hit their top ‘B’ to perfection. The Elizabethan Singers are perhaps the most passionate of the other performances.

Spotify

This playlist offers the versions conducted by Richard Hickox and Louis Halsey. It also includes a third version from the American Boychoir.

Also written in 1944: Dohnányi: Symphony No.2 in E major, Op.40

Next up: Peter Grimes, Op.33

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