Canticle III: Still falls the rain, Op.55 (The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn) – for tenor voice, horn and piano (27 November 1954, Britten aged 40)
Dedication Noel Mewton-Wood
Text Edith Sitwell
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
Once again a Britten opera is immediately followed by a canticle. This was a relatively fallow period of composition for Britten, who after all had completed three operas in quick succession in Billy Budd, Gloriana and The Turn of the Screw. The reception accorded to Gloriana was a factor in his lying low.
Once again he turns to a theme and variations form, as in The Turn of the Screw, though this time the structure is close knit and restricted to a theme and six variations from just the horn and the piano. The tenor sings Edith Sitwell’s allegorical poem The Canticle of the Rose, which also bears the subtitle The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn.
Completed in 1955, the canticle was incorporated into a larger work in 1956 called The Heart of the Matter, which included other settings of Sitwell. It is dedicated to the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, a close friend of both Britten and Pears, who sadly took his own life in December 1953.
Michael Short’s booklet notes for Hyperion’s 1992 recording of the canticle (made by Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Michael Thompson and Roger Vignoles) explain how Britten incorporates ‘a type of sprechgesang at the climactic moment where the poet quotes a phrase from the end of Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus’.
Although Britten’s third canticle is less obviously ‘sacred’ than the second or indeed the first, it is every bit as emotive and thought provoking – perhaps the composer’s most pointed work in this form.
This is a stark reminder of the war, both through Edith Sitwell’s graphic poetry and Britten’s equally harrowing realisation. The horn, often a source of comfort in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, assumes a rather different form here, much more austere in style and uncompromising in musical language.
Try as it might the music never fully breaks away from its tonal centre of B flat. Normally this is a source of good things for Britten, but in this case provides scant solace from the horrors of the text. The oft-heard refrain, ‘still falls the rain’, is written rather in the style of Purcell and becomes a haunting epitaph.
When witnessed in concert this is a striking and powerful utterance, nowhere more so than when Britten approaches the final cadence in typically oblique fashion. The moment of resolution, when it finally arrives, is the moment you realise you’ve been holding your breath for the last two minutes, but still need the silence afterwards.
Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn), Benjamin Britten (piano) (recorded at the Aldeburgh Festival, 21 June 1956) (BBC Legends)
Peter Pears (tenor), Barry Tuckwell (horn), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Michael Thompson (horn), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Frank Lloyd (horn), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Timothy Brown (horn), Julius Drake (piano) (Virgin Classics)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Richard Watkins (horn), Julius Drake (piano) (Wigmore Hall Live)
An illustrious discography is headed by the very first recording of this work, captured by the BBC at the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival – the only instance of Dennis Brain performing the horn part. Pears’s voice is flatter here than on his Decca version, which suits the harrowing Sitwell text. It just has the edge over the 1961 studio recording, where Barry Tuckwell is on fine form.
To be truthful any of the versions listed above are more than ample communicators of the anguish in Sitwell and Britten’s work, though Mark Padmore’s vocal refrain does carry an incredible emotional clout, even when compared to seasoned Britten tenors such as Langridge, Rolfe Johnson and Bostridge. Langridge’s recording is part of a version of The Heart of the Matter, with readings of Sitwell from Dame Judi Dench. To be honest each of the six horn players listed above plays with great feeling and skill.
The attached playlist includes a number of versions, with the Decca recording of Pears, Tuckwell and Britten, Padmore’s new version with Watkins and Drake, released just this month, and the versions headed by Langridge and Bostridge. As a bonus is a relatively new recording from Stone Records, sung by Daniel Norman with Richard Watkins and Hugh Webb – itself part of a new recording of The Heart of the Matter.
Also written in 1954: Stravinsky – In Memoriam Dylan Thomas
Next up: The Holly and the Ivy