Listening to Britten – Cantata Academica, Carmen Basiliense, Op.62


Old University Basel. Photo (c) Herbert Glarner, used courtesy of Wikipedia

Cantata Academica, Carmen Basiliense, Op.62 – for soprano, contralto, tenor and bass solos, chorus and orchestra (September 1959, Britten aged 45)

Part 1
1 Corale
2 Alla rovesco
3 Recitativo (tenor and piano)
4 Arioso (bass, orchestra)
5 Duettino (soprano, contralto and orchestra)
6 Recitativo (tenor and piano)
7 Scherzo

Part 2
8 Tema seriale con fuga
9 Soli e duetto (contralto, bass and orchestra)
10 Arioso con canto popolare (soprano, tenor, bass and orchestra)
11 Recitativo (tenor and piano)
12 Canone ed istinato
13 Corale con canto

Dedication Composuit Universitati Basiliensi, sollemnia saecularia quinta celebranti, dedicavit Benjamin Britten MCMLX
Text University charter, orations in praise of Basel (Bernhard Wyss)
Language Latin
Duration 21′

Audio
Extracts taken from the first recording of the work, with Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), Owen Brannigan (bass) and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by George Malcolm .With thanks to Decca.

I. Bonorum summun omnium II: Quae bene beateque (chorus and orchestra)

III. At huius caelestis…V: Tum vero Aeneas Sylvius virtus

VI: Et gubernacula. VII: Ut ad longaeva tempora

VIII: Docendi ac discendi

IX. Rhenana erga omnes. X: Ut instissime XI: O cives..

XII. Nos autem cuncti. XIII. Vigeatque academia libera

Background and Critical Reception

As Michael Oliver notes, Britten was in danger of becoming something of an ‘anniversary’ composer towards the end of the 1950s, taking up a number of commissions to mark important dates. This latest was for a piece to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the foundation of the University of Basel, where the first performance took place under Paul Sacher on 1 July 1960. A ‘home’ cast was bolstered by Peter Pears as one of the soloists.

For Oliver, ‘in some pieces from the late 1950s and 1960s Britten seems to be doing what his critics had always accused him of: allowing efficiency and flawless technique to stand in for inspiration. In some of these it could be argued that he was (indeed ‘efficiently’) entering into the spirit of the occasion or the commission. To have celebrated Basel University’s anniversary with a challenging masterpiece would have been over-reacting, as well as wasting effort on an ‘occasional’ piece that might not survive its occasion.’ It should be added that Oliver notes, in a caveat, that ‘to expect a composer to explore new ground in an uninterrupted series of masterpieces is absurd’.

Michael Kennedy commends the work as a ‘light-hearted romp (‘academic’ is not to be taken seriously)’, and singles out ‘the soprano’s arioso over a hummed choral accompaniment being one of many happy inventions.’

Thoughts

This academic commission provoked something of an academic response from Britten, though as Michael Kennedy notes he was careful to lace his composition with humour, thumbing his nose at some of the ponderous and wordy text he had to set, as well as giving the idea of long standing academic traditions a light dressing down.

Some of the choral passages are genuinely thrilling, with brightly coloured, brassy instrumentation that gives all the ceremonial feel Britten would have wanted. The recitatives for tenor and piano are wildly overplayed, too, as if the head prefect has been called forward to give a solo that nobody quite understands. The Purcellian flourish to each is very proud.

Interestingly I would not place the brassy bluster too far from the pen of Walton, the Crown Imperial perhaps, though Britten is careful to use up all twelve pitches in his theme early on, a kind of concession to serial technique but also an illustration of how it can easily work in to a tonal approach. His use of fugal techniques would also have been a concession to academia, though again these are not too precious and have a twinkle in the eye.

The only way to follow this piece is with the text, though, for it gives a greater appreciation of what Britten was having to battle against, and shows how he manages to keep the unwieldy text moving with considerable flair. It also helps appreciation of the soprano arioso, which is the real heart-fluttering moment in the piece.

Overall the piece is good fun, and I would guess it is not heard or recorded too often because of the performing forces required and the duration, which is too short to make one half of a concert, but relatively long for a first piece. It is definitely worth seeking out though, for it is functional music with a dash of schoolboy humour.

Recordings used

Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), Owen Brannigan (bass), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / George Malcolm

This is seemingly the only recording ever made of the Cantata Academica, and has many thrills and spills. The best of these is undoubtedly Vyvyan’s wonderful arioso solo, worth the outlay for the disc on its own.

Spotify

This playlist offers a chance to hear the only available recording of the Cantata Academica, conducted by George Malcolm.

Also written in 1959: Milhaud – Symphony no.9, Op.380

Next up: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.64

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