Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine, Op.40 – for high voice and piano (4 – 12 September 1947, Britten aged 33)
Dedication This Canticle was written for the Dick Sheppard Memorial Concert on 1 November 1947, when it was performed by Peter Pears and the composer
Text Francis Quarles
Audio clip using the recording made by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson in 1985. With thanks to Hyperion
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s first outing in this new form resulted from a commission for the Dick Sheppard Memorial Concert at Westminster Hall in November 1947. Sheppard was founder of the Peace Pledge Union, but typically the composer bent the rules of his commission slightly, fulfilling not only his original brief but satisfying what Paul Kildea calls ‘essentially a love song to Purcell and Peter Pears’.
The text could hardly be more revealing, and was a considerable risk for Britten and his partner to take in 1947. It takes words from the highly charged Song of Solomon, as used and complemented by Francis Quarles, but far from hiding behind the original title of the text, A Divine Rapture, they performed it as My beloved is Mine. John Bridcut emphasises that the capital ‘M’ is the seal of their bond together, Britten ‘advertising even more openly than in the Michelangelo Sonnets his relationship with his singer’.
The music takes its lead from Britten’s realizations of Purcell’s Divine Hymns, set in the same key and taking a similar mood of the Evening Hymn. Most Britten commentators identify the four distinct sections within the work, identified loosely by Kildea as a barcarolle, a coruscating vocal line, a plinky child’s duet and finally a reverential hymn.
Yet once again the text proves the most powerful aspect of this piece: ‘Ev’n so we met and after long pursuit, Ev’n so we joined. We both became entire.’
With his first canticle it feels that Britten is turning over a new page in his development as a composer. There is a greater freedom of expression, both in the improvisatory piano line and the florid writing for his tenor. Indeed it is almost as if the first Canticle is a double realization of Purcell, taking the mood and profile of an Evening Hymn and bringing it further in to the twentieth century.
The extensive melisma in some of the writing gives away the rapture of the text, its excited and rapturous declarations of love tumbling over themselves to get out. Before long the piano cannot help itself, either, a stream of notes refusing to be quelled. The flow is stemmed occasionally, however, and in the more angst-ridden scherzo section there is almost an argument between the protagonists, soon resolved in a soft and thoughtful aftermath, which inevitably leads back to the home key and a more tender affectation. The way Britten does this, though, is by a typically sly, sideways move that makes the listener smile.
Britten, then, opens up a new part of his soul with the first canticle, showing us a greater vulnerability – but sharing an underlying happiness, too.
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Philip Ledger (piano) (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Virgin Classics)
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tillbrook (piano) (Linn)
Ben Johnson (tenor), James Baillieu (piano) (Signum)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Wigmore Hall Live)
One of the composer’s most recorded works, the first canticle has a discography that reads like a roll call of the very finest Britten tenors.
At their head, of course, is Pears – and in such a personal work as this he is a lot more expressive even than most of the recordings here, proclaiming the ‘he is mine’ text with greater affection, no doubt helped by the fact that the object of these affections is sat next to him playing the piano. Britten’s limpid tone as the canticle drifts in is a wonder to behold.
In fact the roll call of pianists is very impressive, too – with Julius Drake involved in two of the very best, a new live recording with Mark Padmore from the Wigmore Hall and a duo with the burnished tones of Ian Bostridge. Anthony Rolfe Johnson has recorded the canticle twice, his version with Roger Vignoles the longest at just over eight minutes, enjoying the room it has but slightly too slow.
It is also clear that Britten will be well served in the future, if the recordings of the younger breed, Ben Johnson and James Baillieu, are anything to go by. A word, too, for the fine tenor of Robert Tear, with its slightly fuller and very distinctive tones.
The attached playlist includes a number of versions, with a Pears-Britten recording that appears not to be the Decca one and is of uncertain origin. It joins those by Bostridge, Langridge and Robert Tear.
Also written in 1947: Barber – Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Next up: Men of Goodwill