Listening to Britten – Jubilate Deo in C major


St Mary’s Church, Chilham, Kent ((c) Ben Hogwood)

Jubilate Deo in C major for choir (SATB) and organ (February 1961, Britten aged 47)

Dedication Written for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, at the request of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh
Text Psalm 100 (The Book of Common Prayer: Morning Prayer)
Language English
Duration 2’30”

Background and Critical Reception

When Britten completed his Te Deum in C major in 1934, he can hardly have anticipated that some 27 years later he would receive a Royal commission for a companion Jubilate Deo. It was requested by the Duke of Edinburgh for the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Britten saw this as a springboard for a possible completion of a full service for the Anglican Daily Office, but although he completed a Venite for the same performing forces, the project was left unfinished.

Christopher Chowrimootoo, writing in the sleeve notes for Edward Higginbottom’s new recording of Britten sacred works on the Novum label, details how the Jubilate, ‘with its vital rhythms and heterophonic textures, has secured itself a place in the Anglican liturgy, despite having raised a few eyebrows on the occasion of its premiere’. This is because it was felt to be too extrovert.

Thoughts

The Jubilate Deo is a bracing companion to the more substantial Te Deum. It bears more than a passing resemblance to The Morning Stars section of The Company of Heaven, both additionally sharing ‘C’ as their tonal root, but here the major key exuberance is irresistible, topped by the use of trebles in the choir for a brighter sound.

There is a lovely, hushed section in the middle, where Britten reacts to the text ‘for the Lord is gracious’ with reverent calm, the harmonies more chromatic and mysterious. The organ, however, cannot resist an impudent twinkling of some of the figuration from the original theme.

Interestingly the Jubilate Deo was used a number of times in the BBC comedy series Rev, with Tom Hollander listening to the music on headphones as he attempted to hang on to his spirituality in the face of a number of ‘challenging’ members of the community. Listening to this piece again, then, was like meeting an old friend!

Recordings used

Choir Of St. John’s College, Cambridge / George Guest, Brian Runnett (organ) (Decca)
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / Sir Philip Ledger (EMI)
Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Stephen Grahl (organ) (Novum)
Holst Singers / Stephen Layton, David Goode (organ) (Hyperion)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer, Andrew Lumsden (organ) (Chandos)

It is interesting comparing the speeds of the versions from Higginbottom and George Guest. The former is quick of the mark, with sparkling organ counterpoint, while Guest is relatively slow. The Finzi Singers deliver a frothy, effervescent performances, but if a more churchy approach is preferred the listener is spoilt for choice as Sir Philip Ledger and Edward Higginbottom’s versions are both superb. Stephen Layton conducts Polyphony in a pure version that benefits from a superb Hyperion recording.

Spotify

This playlist contains no fewer than six versions, including those above conducted by George Guest, Sir Philip Ledger, Edward Higginbottom and Paul Spicer. As a bonus the version from The Sixteen under Harry Christophers is added, as is a version from the Choir of St John’s College Cambridge, conducted by Christopher Robinson.

Also written in 1961: Arnold – Symphony no.5

Next up: Venite Exultemus Domino

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