Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op.51 – for alto and tenor voices and piano (January 1952, Britten aged 38)
Dedication Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears
Text Chester Miracle Play: Histories of Lot and Abraham
Audio clip using the recording made by Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Michael Chance (countertenor) and Graham Johnson (piano). With thanks to Hyperion.
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s first three canticles follow closely in the wake of major operas (Albert Herring, Billy Budd and The Turn of The Screw respectively), so it is perhaps not surprising that he brings a very strong dramatic input to each.
The second canticle, twice as long as My Beloved is Mine, is the first of two settings he made on the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In it, the father Abraham’s faith is tested, as God instructs him to offer his only son Isaac as a sacrifice. Given that Abraham waited many years for a son, this is the hardest thing he could possible do.
Yet neither of Britten’s settings uses the Biblical text. The second, in the War Requiem, is rewritten by Wilfred Owen. In it, the father kills his son, a shocking moment that leads to the slaying of ‘half the seed of Europe, one by one’. The outcome of this second canticle, using a text from the Chester plays, is the same as it is in the Bible, where an angel of God intervenes just as Abraham’s knife is raised to do the deed.
Britten wrote this canticle for performance by Peter Pears (Abraham) and Kathleen Ferrier (Isaac), to be performed in concerts where the trio were raising money for the English Opera Group. Today however it is more common to hear the parts sung by a tenor and countertenor, or even a tenor and boy alto. Britten and Pears used these means in recording, with John Hahessy taking up the part of Isaac.
The unison passage with which the work begins represents the voice of God, and to achieve a unique timbre Britten specifies this should be sung by the two singers in homophony, facing away from each other. In this way he brought his acumen of stage management to his ‘chamber’ vocal works, achieving what Michael Short terms to be ‘a miniature opera’.
There are some critics who really struggle with this work within Britten’s output, and in a review of the canticles for the Arts Desk earlier this year David Nice described it as ‘another of Britten’s queasy innocence-and-experience works stemming from his extraordinary revelation to trusted sources that he was raped by a schoolmaster, possibly even abused by his father’.
I am not so sure. To me it seems a faithful setting of a disturbing Old Testament story, one that resonated sharply with Britten on account of his sympathy for children.
The combination of the two voices at the start of this canticle, held over a luminous piano accompaniment of almost pure stillness, is one of the most magical moments in all of Britten’s vocal writing, especially if experienced in performance. There is a static reverence that is rarely found in any music up to this point, let alone Britten’s, as the voice of God is heard – but afterwards it is possible to hear the influence of this writing in the devotional music of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt.
After the first statement the walking bass in the piano part brings to mind Bach’s Sleepers Awake chorale, its constant prodding becoming much more animated as the demands for Isaac as a sacrifice are made and become clear. Britten portrays Abraham’s anguish in an increasingly distressed vocal line, and the piano also becomes extremely agitated.
Britten draws from his Purcell realizations throughout, either in the melisma of the quicker, urgent passages, or in the stillness of the opening, which surely takes Saul and the Witch at Endor as its blueprint. Here, however, the stillness is pure rather than menacing.
The use of a countertenor often divides audiences, and here the high pitched entreaties of Isaac will be no different. But nobody, surely, could fail to be moved by the outer sections of a work that asks many questions, as well as providing some strikingly beautiful answers.
Peter Pears (tenor), Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Peter Pears (tenor), John Hahessy (treble), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Michael Chance (countertenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Jean Rigby (contralto), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), David Daniels (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Virgin Classics)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) (Wigmore Hall Live)
Personal preference on the singing line-up of Abraham and Isaac will determine the chosen version. If the original is to be preferred, then there really is no better than the three that first performed this work, Pears, Ferrier and Britten. Ferrier’s voice in the lower range is uncommonly full-bodied.
If the preference is for a boy alto in the part of Isaac, then Britten and Pears again – this time with John Hahessy – are the ones to hear, and it is certainly a very realistic discourse between the father and son characters.
There are many fine versions with tenor and countertenor. Bostridge and Daniels work incredibly well together, the countertenor capturing the relative immaturity of Isaac, while Bostridge has some appropriate, fatherly tones. Julius Drake’s commentary on the piano is full of musical insight.
Similarly on Hyperion, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Michael Chance create a magical atmosphere with Roger Vignoles – and on the recent issue of canticles from Wigmore Hall Live, Mark Padmore and Iestyn Davies can hardly be separated in their unison passages – even the vibrato is the same.
However my personal choice was for a tenor and contralto – Philip Langridge and Jean Rigby, with pianist Steuart Bedford. This was recorded in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, and for some reason the church acoustic is wholly appropriate. It made all the difference to how I listened to the piece, which is after all a clear harbinger of Britten’s equally dramatic church parables of the 1960s.
The attached playlist includes a number of versions, with another version from Pears and Britten, this time with the contralto Norma Procter. This is joined by the versions headed by Bostridge, recording that appears not to be the Decca one and is of uncertain origin. It joins those by Bostridge, Langridge and Mark Padmore.
Also written in 1952: Cage – 4’33”
Next up: Variation on an Elizabethan Theme