Listening to Britten – The twelve apostles

The Synaxis of the holy and the most praiseworthy Twelve Apostles (14th century). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The twelve apostles for tenor, unison chorus and piano (between March and May 1962, Britten aged 48)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 6′

Background and Critical Reception

This is a companion song to King Herod and the Cock, designed for the London Boys’ Choir to sing at the 1962 Aldeburgh Festival. The Britten Thematic Catalogue gives the source of the tune as the Journal of the Folksong Society, November 1928.

Philip Reed describes how ‘Britten avoids the inherent monotony of the folk song by a supremely inventive piano part whose flourishes to introduce the tenor soloist is based on each of the notes of the chromatic scale in turn.’ John Bridcut, however, surmises, that ‘this is one of those songs to sing than to listen to’.


John Bridcut’s appraisal of this bracing choral number appears to me to be spot on. It is a very clever piece of composition from Britten that spins the same tune across twelve verses with a different setting for each, in the form of a brusque fanfare from the piano that begins on each note of the chromatic scale. This does initially prove to be humourous but becomes a little trying once you realise there will be one verse per apostle.

The make-up of the song is very similar to The Twelve days of Christmas, and rather like that song it is a big relief when the final part is reached! The song ends triumphantly – and no doubt when experienced live brought the house down. That effect is rather lost on record.

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), The Wenhaston Boys Choir / Christopher Burnett, David Owen Norris (piano) (Naxos)

Philip Langridge gets his part just right, with lots of exaggerated holding back and vocal flourishes that contrast ideally with the dead pan delivery of the boys and the wildly exaggerated piano flurries.


Philip Langridge and Christopher Burnett can be heard here.

Also written in 1962: Tippett – King Priam

Next up: A Hymn of St Columba

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

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