Listening to Britten – The Heart of the Matter

Baptistry window by John Piper, at Coventry Cathedral
Photo (c) Steve Cadman (from Wikipedia)

The Heart of the Matter – for speaker, tenor voice, horn and piano (May 1956, Britten aged 42)

Prologue – Fanfare: Where are the Seeds of the Universal Fire
The earth of my heart was broken and gaped low (Reading)
In the hour when the sapphire of the bone (Reading)
We are the darkness in the heat of the day
In such a heat of the earth (Reading)
Canticle III: Still falls the rain, Op.55 (The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn)
I see Christ’s wounds weep in the Rose on the wall (Reading)
Epilogue – Fanfare: So , out of the dark

Dedication Noel Mewton-Wood (the Canticle)
Text Edith Sitwell
Language English
Duration 25′

Audio clips

Clips from the new recording on Stone Records can be heard at Amazon, performed by Daniel Norman (tenor), Richard Watkins (horn) and Christopher Gould (piano). The readings are by Harriet Walter.

Background and Critical Reception

Although Britten composed his third canticle Still Falls The Rain in 1954, he was to revisit it 18 months later for the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival. This was mostly due to an overwhelmingly positive response from the poet Edith Sitwell, whose words Britten set. She described the first performance of the canticle as ‘one of the greatest experiences in all my life as an artist. What a great composer you are, and what a very great singer Peter is!’

Britten then invited her to perform at the festival, and wrote a further three songs for a sequence of music and readings, with the canticle at the centre. These were performed by Sitwell herself, reading the text, Britten, Pears and Dennis Brain – and the recording of the canticle was preserved by the BBC and issued on the sadly out of print Britten the Performer series on BBC Legends.

The sequence was further augmented with a horn fanfare, but the songs were not performed again during Britten’s life. Pears revived them in shortened form for a Wigmore Hall concert in 1983, reading the text while his pupil Neil Mackie sang, with the horn player Richard Watkins and Iain Burnside at the piano. He also recorded it in the same year.

Philip Reed, writing in booklet notes for the Collins Classics issue of the canticles, The Heart of the Matter at its centre, describes how ‘The irregular metre of Sitwell’s Still Falls the Rain would have made it difficult for Britten to make an effective lyrical setting; his solution is at once typically ingenious and seemingly inevitable…the text declaimed by the tenor in the form of recitatives’.


The addition of extra items certainly increases the dramatic power of the canticle Still Falls the Rain, but the three songs Britten writes around the main item carry powerful messages too.

The insertion of a horn fanfare at the start brings a brief parallel with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, but there is a very different feel to this music. It carries an intense foreboding, often closing in on itself, and when the tenor enters with the words, ‘Where are the seeds of the Universal Fire’, the mood of latent anger is cast.

The horn line at the end of the song is angular, troubled and lonely, and these powerful feelings pass all the way through to the final song, So, out of the dark. The horn, muted at the end (the Serenade again) is barely comforted, the listener likewise.

The readings do not lessen the musical tension, especially with the canticle itself bordering on the spoken word at its biting climax. If anything, Still Falls the Rain carries an even more bitter tone, the centre of a cycle that pulls no punches on its writers stance against war.

Recordings used

Neil Mackie (tenor), Peter Pears (speaker), Barry Tuckwell (horn), Roger Vignoles (piano) (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Dame Judi Dench (speaker) Frank Lloyd (horn), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Daniel Norman (tenor), Harriet Walter (reader), Richard Watkins (horn), Christopher Gould (piano) (Stone Records)

Both established versions are excellent. However exciting it is to hear Pears reading the text, he reads as a singer might, with some pitched notes. Dame Judi Dench really does offer an extra dimension, reading with great poise, and Philip Langridge sings a highly charged account.

A welcome new version from Stone Records enhances an already fine set of Canticles, performed live in the Holywell Music Room Oxford but retaining excellent sound. Daniel Norman sings with a suitably piercing tone, Richard Watkins revisits his role from Pears’ 1983 Wigmore Hall appearance, and Harriet Walter’s readings carry a hushed intensity.


This playlist groups together the eight ‘movements’ of the performance from Langridge, Dench, Lloyd and Graham Johnson.

Also written in 1956: Bernstein – Candide

Next up: The Prince of the Pagodas, Op.57

This entry was posted in Canticles, Italian, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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