A Children’s Crusade, Op.82 – a ballad for children’s voices and orchestra (a large array of percussion, two pianos and electronic or chamber organ) (January 1969, Britten aged 53)
Dedication To Hans Werner Henze Also, Written for the members of Wandsworth School Choir (director Russell Burgess) to perform on the 50th Anniversary of The Save The Children Fund at St. Paul’s Cathedral, May 19th 1969
Text Bertolt Brecht
Audio clip (from the recording with Wandsworth School Boys Choir / Benjamin Britten, Russell Burgess (piano))
Background and Critical Reception
Although Britten had expressed his views against war with great force and poignancy in the War Requiem, he was not done yet with the subject of pacifism. With his next opera Owen Wingrave just around the corner, waiting to give its own anti-war sentiments straight to television, here was a vehicle for children to express some very direct views on the futility of war.
This was done under the guise of another anniversary commission, this time for the fiftieth anniversary of the charity Save The Children. To commemorate the milestone the Wandsworth School Choir performed the work as part of a commemorative service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
For his text Britten chose Bertolt Brecht, who tells the story of Polish children orphaned at the start of the Second World War. They travel off in search of hope, and find a dog along the way. As Paul Kildea notes, ‘they almost become adults and enact adult rituals’. Ultimately – and sadly – the group of children breaks up, either through death or squabbling, and the last word goes to the dog – who has survived until now but who also dies.
Britten asks for a huge battery of percussion alongside the childrens’ choir, but they are all to be played by children, as presumably are the two pianos – though the organ part appears to be more thoroughly written out.
Paul Spicer makes several important points in his guide to the piece for Boosey & Hawkes. ‘The bottom line in this piece is that these young people are never being written down to. Britten writes a work which challenges them on every level – including the nature of the story. That makes A Children’s Crusade a hugely worthwhile work to rehearse and perform. With today’s emphasis on co-education the involvement of girls with boys makes the whole thing far more achievable in every sense than it might have been at the time of its premiere.’
Neil Powell, in his autobiography Britten: A life in Music, obtains a useful testimony from one of the children involved in the first performance of Children’s Crusade, who confirms the experience was not an easy one. Powell is less sure of the piece, as are many Britten scholars. John Bridcut is even less sympathetic. ‘Britten was never so grim as this piece’, he writes. ‘It batters, rather than cajoles or moves, the audience with its bleak pacifist message, and I wonder whether it has won many hearts.’
This is not a happy piece. A desolate mood hangs over the children from start to finish, so that while the work has roughly the same performing forces as The Golden Vanity it has none of the humour of that piece. Brecht’s text is resolutely downbeat, but it is the music that really strains at the boundaries of bleakness and despair.
A Children’s Crusade begins with an explosion that seems to scatter the percussion everywhere, which no doubt was hugely therapeutic for the children hitting the instruments. It also provides a vivid picture of bombs going off, and acts as the prompt for the children to start singing. There is not much sense of melody or even tonality, for Britten is using his appropriation of serial, twelve-note techniques here, and it is a wonder the children were able to take these and secure a convincing performance.
This is almost certainly down to Britten’s word painting, and his skill in characterising features such as the two dogs who appear, represented in this case by the pictorial use of a musical saw. Only the semi-recitative just over three minutes in provides a little respite, and it is quite affecting as the music hangs, as if anticipating the next event, but then we return to the cold, bleak outlook set out at the start.
There are some curious moments that recall the church parables, particularly when the flourish of the organ part can be heard. The recitative recalls the robing ceremonies, while the sparse musical textures also reflect Britten’s recent tendency to write sparsely.
Yet I could find little to suggest that A Children’s Crusade is a work to which I would want to return, not solely on account of its musical quality, but because of its almost complete lack of hope.
Wandsworth School Choir / Benjamin Britten, Russell Burgess (piano) (Decca)
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford / Stephen Darlington, Clive Driskill-Smith (piano) (Lammas)
I would imagine it hard to get children to concentrate on such a bleak text for a relatively long period of time, but that is emphatically achieved in both of these recordings. Either are strong recommendations in a scarcely crowded field.
Both versions of A Children’s Crusade can be heard on the streaming service. Benjamin Britten conducts the Wandsworth School Choir here, while Stephen Darlington conducts the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford here (tbc).
Also written in 1969 – Shostakovich: Symphony no.14 Op.135
Next up: Suite for harp, Op.83