Listening to Britten – Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria


The organ, Culross Abbey (c) Ben Hogwood

Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria for organ (18 September 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication St Matthew’s Church, Northampton, St Matthew’s Day, 1946
Duration 5’30”

Background and Critical Reception

Even at five minutes in length, the Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria is Britten’s most substantial published work for organ. John Bridcut details how it was ‘written in a hurry three days before St Matthew’s Church, Northampton (for whom Britten wrote Rejoice in the Lamb) was due to mark its patronal festival. The theme is from Vittoria’s four-part motet Ecce sacerdos magnus, which dates from 1585.

The vicar of the church, Walter Hussey, was trying to get Britten to set words by Auden for a St Matthew’s Day hymn – but in the end although Auden provided the text, the musical material did not materialise – a sign of the ever-widening gap between the now estranged collaborators.

Instead, as Bridcut rather curtly states, ‘he dashed off this nondescript piece – his only solo work for the organ. The organ accompaniment he provided for the Missa Brevis showed greater originality’.

Thoughts

I’m afraid I have to agree with John Bridcut, as this is a piece that I found largely uninspiring. It is a big regret that Britten didn’t have an organist to inspire him to write bigger pieces, as his writing for the instrument is so accomplished elsewhere, in works such as Rejoice in the Lamb, and even The Company of Heaven.

Here, however, the rather austere melodic material fails to grab the listener, and even as the fugue builds to a twisted and rather unconvincing peak there is little sense of a true musical apex being reached. As Britten finds the major key, and the harmonies die away rather quickly, it is almost as if he recognises that, too.

Recordings used

Simon Preston (organ) (Decca)

Simon Preston’s recording seems to be an old one exhumed for the purposes of Decca’s comprehensive issue of The Complete Works. His voicing and registrations are typically sensitive to the melodic material.

Spotify

Surprisingly there are a plethora of recordings of the Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria from which to choose on Spotify. Stephen Cleobury can be heard here, part of a disc devoted to British Organ Music. Iain Farrington can be heard here, part of a disc of Britten choral works made for Naxos by the Choir of St John’s College Cambridge and Christopher Robinson.

Also written in 1946: Walton – String Quartet in A minor

Next up: O Waly, Waly

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