Listening to Britten – What is a Canticle?

Antechapel window, Robinson College Chapel, Cambridge, 1978-80 by John Piper. (c) The Piper Estate

As Listening to Britten approaches another important area of the composer’s output, I thought it would be useful to get some context on what constitutes a ‘canticle’, because it is effectively a new form of expression, and has remained exclusive to Britten ever since.

There are a number of contrary descriptions of what a ‘canticle’ might be. Most say the text should be sacred. Most agree that they are too big to be classed as songs. Some say they are cantatas – but then so is Orff’s Carmina Burana or Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast – and indeed Britten’s own Saint Nicolas, so perhaps ‘cantata’ is thought of in the way Handel or Vivaldi might have used it, as a smaller vocal piece in several sections lasting around 10-15 minutes.

The best explanation I could find, perhaps inevitably, comes from the pen of Philip Reed. In his booklet notes for the Collins Classics set of Britten’s complete canticles, Reed writes:

‘Britten’s sequence of five canticles was composed between 1947 and 1974 and like so much of his vocal chamber music features the tenor voice, which runs as a constant thread through each work. The tenor voice in the original performances was of course that of Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and chief interpreter, whose elegant vocal style ideally suited the canticle genre, whose complex texts would have been too substantial for the smaller independent forms of the conventional song-cycle.’

He also covers the religious aspect of the works. ‘While no liturgical connotation is intended, Britten readily admitted that Purcell’s Divine Hymns not only provided a model but also a creative impulse for his own canticles, and each work in the series shares a similar religious quality. The canticles also inhabit something of the stylised, ritualistic approach of many of Britten’s works (e.g. A Ceremony of Carols and the three church parables of the 1960s), an aspect that is, if
anything, emphasised when they are heard together.’

In an interview with the pianist Julius Drake, shortly to be published on the blog, we explored the individual canticles further. “They’re a wonderful group to do. Canticle I (My beloved is mine) is very beautiful but quite short, quite succinct, for tenor and piano, and then you have Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac), which adds a countertenor or a mezzo. This is the most immediately emotionally appealing, it tells the story in a way that you recognise it, and it is absolutely brilliant. For me that is one of the Britten pieces that I really fell in love with, and I still adore.

Then you have the austere Canticle III (Still falls the Rain), the setting of Edith Sitwell’s extraordinary poem, and there is some very bleak music about the air raids over London, as well as the text being very religious. That is very different from the first two. Then Canticle IV moves right back closer to the 1970s, at the end of Britten’s life, when he was very taken with T.S. Eliot’s work. He sets The Journey of the Magi, which is an amazing poem, for tenor, countertenor and baritone, plus piano. In a lot of ways I think that is the hardest one for the audience, but the more I hear it the more wonderful I think it is. It really is amazing, quite bleak, but very strong and intense, very concentrated.

And then we have Canticle V which is one of my absolute favourites, for tenor and harp. It is a setting of The Death of St Narcissus, which I think is some of his most marvellous music, right at the end of his life. So it’s a wonderful range. I don’t think he intended them to be done together, but it was confirmed to me recently that he gave each canticle a number, so when he wrote his first canticle he had an idea there would be others. They’ve always got a religious subtext or principal text, but they’re very different. I think they are one of his major achievements. It’s a bit like the string quartets, and I think he thought of it like that, always having the tenor there but having a different ensemble, depending on where the inspiration comes from.”

Historically the Canticles have divided opinion, particularly the second, Abraham and Isaac, with its subject matter and casting for treble voice and tenor. But more of that later in the listening project. Recently the group has experienced a surge in popularity as a whole, becoming as Julius said a self-contained unit in concert for venues such as the Wigmore Hall, whose own record label is about to release the collection as heard at the venue’s Britten celebrations in 2012.

More recently they have also inspired interpretations through other media, with Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake leading an evening of music and visual projections for the Royal Opera House earlier this year.

And so we approach the first canticle with these things in mind. It will be interesting to see what further characteristics of Britten the composer are revealed.

The full text of the interview with Julius Drake will be published soon on the blog. The forthcoming disc on Wigmore Hall Live of all five canticles can be viewed here, while Ian Bostridge talks about the Canticles – the first and third in particular – below:

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