Listening to Britten – The Building of the House, Op.79


Britten with Pears at Snape Maltings. Photo by Hans Wild, used courtesy of http://www.britten100.org

The Building of the House, overture for orchestra with or without chorus, Op.79 (January – 16 March 1967)

Dedication For the opening of The Maltings Concert Halls, Snape
Text Psalm 127, adapted by Imogen Holst from ‘The whole book of psalms’
Language English
Duration 6′

Background and Critical Reception

In writing an overture for his own new concert hall, Britten was in a sense recalling a similar commission undertaken by Beethoven in 1822, The Consecration of the House. Yet here he added a choral element too, deciding on the opening words of Psalm 127, which read:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain’

John Bridcut details how Britten sets these words to the seventeenth century chorale melody, Vater unser im Himmelreich. The choral part, however, can be substituted by organ and trombones.
The ceremonial piece was performed at the opening of the Snape Maltings, the new flagship concert hall for the Aldeburgh Festival, on 2 June 1967, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. Alas only two years later the building was destroyed by fire, but happily the overture was used again for its reopening in 1970.

Thoughts

The overture begins with great bluster and pomp, the strings scurrying around as if they are workmen on the new structure, before the chorus come in with a stately intervention. There is a brief but mysterious central passage, where the percussion come to the fore, before the quick music returns again and the piece ends emphatically.

I was frequently reminded of the music of Walton while listening to this piece, the Portsmouth Point overture in particular. This is due to the incessant and wide eyed energy that suggests worker ants rushing about their business. When the choir comes in theirs is a slow passage against all the hyperactivity in the orchestra, before a rich and affirmative chord in D major signals the crowning glory of the piece.

Recordings used

East Anglian Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
East Anglian Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (BBC Legends, live performance)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)

Britten’s own recording is full of energy and commitment, and it was great to hear the first performance itself in its BBC Legends guise, though as John Bridcut points out the entry of the choir here is a semitone sharp. Sir Simon Rattle secures a bold and full bodied performance from the CBSO.

Spotify

Rattle’s version is here, while a real curiosity can be heard from BBC Legends, with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a concert performance found here

Also written in 1967: Ligeti – Lontano

Next up: The Oxen

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