‘Take that you wastrel!’ – Gloriana by Jane Mackay, her personal response to the music. Used with many thanks to the artist, whose work can be viewed on her own website Sounding Art
Choral Dances from Gloriana for tenor solo, harp and chorus (1967, Britten aged 53)
3 Time and concord
4 Country girls
5 Rustics and fishermen
6 Final dance of homage
Text William Plomer
Background and Critical Reception
Britten revisited his 1953 opera Gloriana when called upon for some music for the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre. His choice was particularly appropriate given Gloriana’s genesis as an opera for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, but it also proved the resourceful nature of its composer in crafting new works from pre-existing material.
This was also satisfying in a sense for Britten because the music from Gloriana, owing to the work’s less than complimentary reception, had not seen the light of day, and the composer was convinced of its merits.
The six choral dances are taken from early on in Act 2 of the opera, when the city of Norwich presents a masque in honour of the Queen. As Philip Reed writes in his booklet notes for the Finzi Singers recording on Chandos, Britten ‘insisted on retaining his original structure for this scene, in which six brief tableaux are introduced by the Spirit of the Masque. These introductions are usually omitted when performing the Choral Dances independently of the opera.’
The light texture of the dances is on occasion bolstered by a harp, though this is not always used.
The Choral Dances make an excellent concert item, and are a valuable addition to a choir’s repertoire. Because Gloriana is hardly ever heard, it is also more or less the only way of getting this music into the concert repertoire, the deceptively simple choral writing more intricate on closer inspection.
After a brief introduction from the tenor over a thrumming , we move into the dances proper. Time is a vigorous dance in the purest C major, one of Britten’s clever pieces of writing where one part circles another. Concord, by contrast, is much more subdued and reverent, the music moving in stepwise motion and gradually swelling, before falling back to a thoughtful calm. Time and Concord is a softly undulating dance, again in a semi-canonic state, reaching its climax in the statement of Gloriana’s name.
The women dominate Country Girls with jerky rhythms, singing a distinctive melody that stays in the head for ages, while the men come to the fore in Rustics and Fishermen, bold as brass with their distinctive motif. Finally the Final Dance of Homage melts the heart with its subtle beauty, softly lulling the listener with its rich and consonant sounds.
The tenor introductions before each dance, if they are kept, bring an extra element of drama to a performance, while the harp writing, adds a nice depth when used but keeps the essentially open sound that Britten seems to be looking for.
This is, then, an excellent example of where Britten’s resourcefulness brings one of his lesser known works to the fore. Anyone hearing the Choral Dances out of context will surely want to explore more.
Elizabethan Singers / Louis Halsey (Eloquence)
Ian Partridge (tenor), The Sixteen / Harry Christophers, Helen Tunstall (harp) (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer (Chandos)
Martyn Hill (tenor), Holst Singers / Hilary Davan Watton, Thelma Owen (harp) (Hyperion)
The version from the Sixteen includes the introductions to each dance, sung brightly by Ian Partridge. The choir themselves establish just the right balance of energy and lyricism. The Elizabethan Singers have a richer sound with more vibrato, but that suits the regal text and scene. Meanwhile the Holst Singers are notable for their clarity and an excellent recorded sound.
This playlist includes the versions from The Sixteen, the Elizabethan Singers and the Finzi Singers
Also written in 1967: Reich – Piano Phase
Next up: The Building of the House, Op.79