Listening to Britten – Hymn to St Peter, Op.56a


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Hymn to St Peter, Op.56a for choir (SATB) with treble solo (or semi-chorus) and organ (summer 1955, Britten aged 41)

Dedication Written for the Quincentenary of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, 1955
Text From the gradual and the alleluia and verse of the Feast of the Holy Apostles St Peter and St Paul
Language Latin English
Duration 6′

Audio

A clip of the recording made by St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, conducted by John Scott, with organist Huw Williams. With thanks to Hyperion.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s first piece of church music for six years (the Wedding Anthem in 1949 being his last) was written to commemorate the quincentenary of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich in 1955. The anthem is based on the chant Tu es Petrus, which is aired on the organ before the choir begin to sing.

In his notes for the first instalment of Hyperion’s English Anthem series, Dr William R McVicker describes how ‘the Latin text is sung by a solo treble, with echoes of the plainsong theme, juxtaposed with Britten’s own harmonic language. This conveniently draws the ancient to the modern as the chorus translates the text the treble sings.

Paul Spicer, writing in his Britten Choral Guide for Boosey & Hawkes, picks out the central section, a kind of Scherzo, noting its similarities to the equivalent section of the larger-scale Hymn to St Cecilia. For him, the Hymn to St Peter ‘makes a very effective concert or liturgical work’.

John Bridcut, meanwhile, suggests slightly mischievously that Britten may have used the ‘St Peter’ commission as another chance to write some music in honour of his own Peter.

Thoughts

Britten wrote several of these hymns in his lifetime, paying homage to the saints Cecilia, Peter and Columba, as well as the Virgin Mary. In each he finds an elevated mood, with some transfigured music that often suggests the listener could be on another shore.

The Hymn to St Peter doesn’t find that place as consistently as the Hymn to St Cecilia, but then they are written for very different occasions. There is a ceremonial feel to this anthem, particularly with the trumpet stop fanfares on the organ that blast out the chant theme, but when the treble solo is heard a mood of peaceful contemplation descends over the piece. It alternates between these two different forms of energy before running to a soft and rather atmospheric close.

This anthem should undoubtedly be heard more often, for as Dr McVicker notes above, its integration of ancient and modern is solemn yet very effective.

Recordings used

Choir Of St. John’s College / George Guest, Brian Runnett (organ) (Decca)
Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Steven Grahl (organ) (Novum)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers, Margaret Phillips (organ) (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer, Andrew Lumsden (organ) (Chandos)

As Paul Spicer indicates, there are two very valid approaches to the Hymn to St Peter – a concert performance or a ‘churchy’ one. George Guest conducts in the latter discipline, a beautifully shaped reading, while Edward Higginbottom and his charges similarly imply the presence of a congregation.

The Finzi Singers and the Sixteen give more of a concert performance of this work, both notable for their brighter tones and more obvious vibrato, with more female singers presumably used. Either of the four versions does justice to the spirit of the hymn.

Spotify

Edward Higginbottom conducts the choir of New College Oxford in their new recording here. Harry Christophers and the Sixteen can be heard here, while the Finzi Singers are conducted by Paul Spicer here. Additionally, recordings by the St John College Cambridge Choir, conducted by Christopher Robinson, can be heard here.

Also written in 1955: Stockhausen – Klavierstücke V–VIII

Next up: Timpani piece for Jimmy

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One Response to Listening to Britten – Hymn to St Peter, Op.56a

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – A Hymn of St Columba | Good Morning Britten

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