Listening to Britten – Voices for Today, Op.75


Flag of the United Nations. Used courtesy of Wikipedia

Voices for Today, Op.75 – anthem for chorus (men, women and children) with ad libitum accompaniment for organ (July 1965, Britten aged 51)

Dedication Commissioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant in May 1964 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the UN
Text Various: From Virgil’s Eclogue IV (in Latin), sentences (set in English): Jesus Christ, Asoka, Sophocles (translated E.F. Watling), Lao Tzu, John Bright, William Penn, Herman Melville, Albert Camus (translated Justin O’Brien), Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (translated R. Milner-Gulland and P. Levi), William Blake, Friedrich Hölderlin (translated Michael Hamburger), Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Percy Bysshe Shelley
Language English and Latin
Duration 10′

Background and Critical Reception

Britten and Peter Pears had decided to take a sabbatical year in 1965, but already it was becoming what Britten described as ‘terribly busy’. As Humphrey Carpenter details in his biography of the composer, ‘he had also accepted a commission to write a cantata for the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, a setting of ‘suitable sentences…from the great peace lovers of history’. It proved very hard to find texts – Plomer and Donald Mitchell both gave advice, and Pears made the final arrangement of the words – and Britten could not find time to begin composition until July, only three months before the work was to be given simultaneous performances in New York, London and Paris.’

Carpenter describes the piece as ‘a low-keyed, gentle work which opens with the setting of a sequence of exhortatory sentences’. One of these was from a certain W.H. Auden, who gave permission for the phrase ‘We must love one another or die’ to be used – though his name does not appear in the Britten Thematic Catalogue’s list of authors.

Paul Spicer, in his Britten Choral Guide, explains how the piece should be given a chance, despite the textual difficulties and some very specific performing instructions from the composer. Voices For Today is scored for a main chorus and a separate boys’ choir (with optional girls), who join the action to sing Virgil’s Eclogue, set in Latin. Britten asks them to be removed, in a gallery, with their own conductor – very much like the War Requiem – with an optional organ part depending on the venue and the sound. In addition, the ‘curlew’ mark is employed once again, giving the two choruses rhythmic independence until they coincide at strategic points.

Voices for Today is hardly ever heard in public, and only one recording exists even to this day. This makes the opening slogan, ‘If you have ears to hear’, all the more pertinent.

Thoughts

This is Britten’s alternative to Give Peace A Chance, though there are many more than two authors for this work! On the face of it, a collection of slogans from peace-loving poets does not appear to provide the material for raw excitement (‘force is not a remedy’, for instance), but ignoring this work would be a travesty, because the music and its sonorities hit me square between the eyes.

Right from the start Britten achieves a remarkable sonority, a cold and clean sound that is clearly calculated by force and distance. Because of the mixed choir there are elements here of A Boy Was Born and the Hymn for St Cecilia, while when the text gets closer together the singing becomes more virtuosic and brings reminders of A.M.D.G.

There are some heart stopping moments though, none more so than just over three minutes in, where the same phrase rises gradually up through the texture to a truly otherworldly consonance. The cooing from the boys’ choir later on is very striking, too, as is the rolling of ‘r’s immediately after. All these elements help Britten to precisely calculate the overall sound.

It is amazing that Voices for Today is not performed more often, despite John Bridcut’s understandable reservations about the words, for it would make an extremely powerful utterance in concert. Technical difficulties aside, it is to be hoped that will be rectified one day.

Recordings used

Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus / Benjamin Britten, Choir of King’s College Cambridge / David Willcocks (Decca)

Only one recording of Voices for Today exists, but it is excellent, with a deep sense of perspective and some very fine singing under the capable direction of Sir David Willcocks. The reverberation in the chapel is ideal. I can’t detect an organ part, unless it is very subtly employed!

Spotify

David Willcocks and Britten conduct the assembled choirs of the Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus and the Choir of King’s College here.

Also written in 1965: The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Next up: Sweet was the song

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