Cantata misericordium, Op.69 for tenor and baritone solos, small chorus and string quartet, string orchestra, piano, harp and timpani (ca July 1963, Britten aged 49)
Dedication In honorem Societatis Crucis Rubrae kalendis septembribus A.S. MCMLXIII sollemnia saecularia Genave celebrantis hoc opus compositum illo primum die auditum est’ ‘To Fidelity Cranbrook
Text Patrick Wilkinson
Extract from the first recording of the work, with Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
The Cantata misericordium is often seen as a substantial postscript to the War Requiem, for two reasons – firstly because it reunited Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in familiar roles, and secondly because its subject matter is remarkably similar, being an adaptation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as told by Jesus in the New Testament. This in itself is a look forward, however, to Britten’s own church parables, which are imminent in his output.
As Arnold Whittall observes, ‘the subject of the cantata…links the miracle-play theme of Noye’s Fludde with the biblical material of the second and third parables; and the choral framing and commentary on an action presented through two male soloists (one, the traveller, a familiar figure in late Britten subjects) is also close to the resources required in the parables.’ The text is set in Latin, adapted by Patrick Wilkinson, and the twenty-minute movement is performed without a break.
Almost lost in this is the fact that the Cantata misericordium was the result of another anniversary commission, with Britten this time asked to celebrate the centenary of the Red Cross. His choice of subject matter was therefore rather appropriate, where a traveller is set upon by robbers and left for dead. Three people pass by on the road – a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan, and it is only the last of the three that stops to help and ultimately rescue the man, tending to his injuries. The chorus introduce the parable by singing ‘Beati misericordes’ (‘Blessed are the merciful’), while the traveller is played by a baritone soloist and the Good Samaritan a tenor.
The first performance of the Cantata was in Geneva on 1 September 1963, where Pears and Fischer-Dieskau were joined in concert by Le Motet de Geneve and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
Donald Mitchell sees the work as something of a political platform for its composer, speaking ‘for peace, compassion and common humanity.’
This is classic Britten territory, the idea of a person left to fend for himself despite crippling injuries, but eventually being rescued by the person who seems least likely to come to his aid. He tells the story with a keen sense of drama, using the orchestra as commentators as well as the chorus – again a reprisal of the their functions in the War Requiem.
He also extracts a string quartet from the main orchestra, and their sighing comments in the aftermath of the robbery are deeply heartfelt and affecting, as are the chorus and orchestra when they observe the two travellers who pass by, happy to leave the man for dead. The baritone is a heavier part; injured and resigned to his fate, but when the tenor enters everything picks up musically, the thrumming harp and optimistic choral response leaving us in no doubt that things are looking up. Here I sensed reminders of Gloriana.
Britten secures a wonderfully open choral sound for this piece, but controls the dynamics carefully, so that this is a thoughtful rather than bombastic piece of work. In a strange way it is appropriate for a celebration of the Red Cross, one of the first stories of first aid perhaps.
When listening it is most important to follow the text, given Patrick Wilkinson’s Latin translation, but if that is done then the Cantata misericordium is a thought provoking response to a meaningful story, beautifully shaped and structured. It should definitely be heard more often.
Pears and Fischer-Dieskau reprise their vocal partnership from the War Requiem, and it is once again a highly charged affair. Pears’ mellifluous voice is ideal for his role as the traveller’s knight in shining armour, while Fischer-Dieskau changes little from his powerful contribution as one of the two soldiers.
Complementing this is a digital recording from Richard Hickox and Chandos, where the vocal soloists John Mark Ainsley and Stephen Varcoe are also excellent, with fulsome support from the Britten Singers.
Also written in 1963: Bernstein – Symphony no.3, ‘Kaddish’
Next up: Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70