Listening to Britten – A Hymn of St Columba

Window in Culross Abbey. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

A Hymn of St Columba – Regis Regum Rectissimi for choir (SATB) and organ (29 December 1962, Britten aged 49)

Dedication for Derek Hill
Text Attributed to St Columba
Language Latin
Duration 2′


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

Background and Critical Reception

Having written A Hymn to the Virgin, the Hymn to St Cecilia and a Hymn to St Peter, Britten now found himself writing in honour of St Columba in one of his longest removed anniversary commissions yet, marking the 1400th anniversary of his voyage from Ireland to Iona.

The commission was from Derek Hill, who had lived for many years at St Colomb’s Rectory in County Donegal, and its first performance was almost inaudible, given outside where the saint had once preached. The word’s are purported to be from the saint himself.

William McVicker, in the booklet notes for Hyperion’s collection Advent at St Paul’s, writes of how the hymn ‘is unusual in its use of the ostinato in the organ pedals. This gives the music a sense of unease – as if something dramatic is about to happen. Britten has, therefore, succeeded in painting the text which tells of the impending Judgement Day.’


The Hymn of St Columba has an attractive, surging theme, whose swell is completely appropriate for an anthem that begins with the words ‘Regis regum rectissimi’ (‘King of kings and lords most high’). It is actually the organ part that propels the words, and Britten enjoys the rocking motion of the bass part for the opening verse, but it does mean the hymn has no secure harmonic structure.

The central part of the hymn then becomes very mysterious. As St Columba’s words declare that ‘Thunder shall rend that day apart’, the chromatic organ notes throw out a sudden sense of vulnerability, the music unsure which way to turn at ‘that day of bitterness’.

Yet as ‘Amor et desiderium’ (‘Man’s questing heart will be at peace’) the musical troubles subside to a restful D major, completing an anthem of impressive economy and expression.

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.


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 1962: Penderecki – Stabat Mater

Next up: Take not a woman’s anger ill

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