Listening to Britten – King Herod and the Cock


Study of a Cockerel by Henry Morley. Photo (c) The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum

King Herod and the Cock for unison voices and piano (3 May 1962, Britten aged 48)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 2′

Background and Critical Reception

After Britten had determined that The Bitter Withy was going to be too difficult for the London Boys’s Singers to perform at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1962, he quickly found two replacements in the form of The Twelve Apostles and this short song for unison choir and piano.

Philip Reed cites how it ‘illustrates how strong was Britten’s feeling for theatrical projection and musical growth. The piano’s menacing ostinato figure which accompanies the first three verses of the song is eventually transformed into a triumphant representation of the cock crowing ‘full senses three’. The bird has been threatening Herod all along.’

Thoughts

It is interesting to note how Britten was not afraid of setting some quite dark texts for children’s choir, and this is another of those instances. Perhaps it is because the War Requiem was occupying a lot of his thinking at this point, but this is a rather stern tale of King Herod’s disbelief in what might happen to him, and it is the cockerel that gives him the ultimate sign at the end.

Right from the stern piano line with which this song begins, there is a strong hint of Janáček in Britten’s writing. As with the surviving torso of The Bitter Withy the music is cold and wintry, and the boys sing of the tale of King Herod and the cockerel with very straight faces. Even a resolution to major key tonality at the end does not take away the chill wind that blows throughout.

Recordings used

The Wenhaston Bots Choir / Christopher Burnett, David Owen Norris (piano) (Naxos)
New London Children’s Choir / Ronald Corp, Alexander Wells (piano) (Naxos)

Corp is much faster and more urgent than Burnett, his version much less stern and even a little mischievous – whereas David Owen Norris finds some much darker colours in his piano playing.

Spotify

Both versions are available on Spotify, with Ronald Corp conducting here, and Christopher Burnett’s interpretation here.

Also written in 1962: La Monte Young – The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer

Next up: The Twelve Apostles

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This entry was posted in Choral, English, Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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