Listening to Britten – Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86

The Tower of Fawley Church, Bucks, 1970 by John Piper. (c) The Piper Estate. Image used courtesy of the BBC

Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86 – for countertenor, tenor, baritone and piano (12-22 January 1971, Britten aged 57)

Dedication James, Peter and John (James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk
Text T.S. Eliot
Language English
Duration 12′

Audio clip using the recording made by Michael Chance (countertenor), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone) and Roger Vignoles (piano). With thanks to Hyperion.

Background and Critical Reception

Once again in Britten’s compositional output, the completion of a large opera is almost immediately followed by a new canticle. Yet here, as Britten returns to the form for the first time in seventeen years, Humphrey Carpenter asserts that he is already looking forward to his next opera, Death In Venice, rather than the last, Owen Wingrave.

In an interview for this blog, the pianist Julius Drake describes the fourth canticle as ‘in a lot of ways…the hardest one for the audience, but the more I hear it the more wonderful I think it is. It really is amazing, quite bleak, but very strong and intense, very concentrated.’

Again the finished work is a fusion of sacred and secular. The Journey of the Magi is based on the journey of the three kings to see the baby Jesus in the New Testament, guided by a star until they reach the stable where the baby Jesus lies. Here the interpretation of their conversation is from T.S. Eliot, written in 1927, and it presents a narrative from one of the magi. In his eyes the journey was a tough one, and that the three kings were not immediately won over by what they saw. An excerpt from the verse confirms this:

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

The subject matter was ideal for a setting using three of the singers closest to Britten’s heart at the time – Peter Pears, of course, and the countertenor James Bowman and baritone John Shirley-Quirk. Yet the three kings sing largely with the same rhythm, and at no point during the canticle are they divided.

Michael Short, in his booklet notes for the recording led by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Roger Vignoles on Hyperion, describes the structure, the canticle ‘cast in a kind of rondo form, in which the journey by camel provides the mood of the ritornello sections’. He also describes how, to counter the less religious text, Britten inserts the chant Magi videntes stellam as the foundation stone of the central episode.


This is not a cosy scene with the three wise men offering gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus – rather it is an account of the trials and tribulations on their journey, albeit one that ends with a belated realisation that it was indeed worth the effort.

At the start the three singers sound like a barbershop ensemble in their close harmonising, with the very distinctive, clear timbre of the countertenor over the top. There is quite a bit of complaining in the text, and the piano seems to tap into this, describing the uneven motion of the camels on which they are travelling.

This is a very unique sound in Britten’s output, moving on a stage from the equally distinctive – and spellbinding – second canticle, Abraham and Isaac, where two voices were used together. The effect here does not stop the listener in their tracks to quite the same extent, but the harmonies used are powerful nonetheless.

There is not a sense of yearning in Eliot’s poem that the three men crave to see the star, more a sense that they feel removed from it and are questioning the expedition they are on. While there is a form of resolution as they find what they are seeking, the poem remains open ended as they feel an alienation from the world – something Britten portrays clearly and an element of the poem to which he no doubt felt a strong resonance.

While maybe not as accomplished or intense as the first three canticles The Journey of the Magi is nonetheless a work of searching originality, asking more questions than it first appears to do. By ending on a question mark Britten is effectively leading straight towards his next published works, the Cello Suite no.3 and the opera Death in Venice, where you sense he has been heading for some time.

Recordings used

James Bowman (countertenor), Peter Pears (tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (baritone), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
David Daniels (countertenor), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Virgin Classics)
Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor), Philip Langridge (tenor), Gerald Finley (baritone), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)
Michael Chance (countertenor), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Mark Padmore (tenor), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Wigmore Hall Live)
Christopher Ainslie (countertenor), Ben Johnson (tenor), Benedict Nelson (baritone), James Baillieu (piano) (Signum Classics)

Despite the undoubted challenges of the three-part harmony Britten asks for in this canticle, the standard of recordings is extremely high. Leading the way is Britten’s own version, the composer at the piano with Bowman, Pears and Shirley-Quirk.

There are a number of very strong digital versions, all of which are highly recommended – whether they be Michael Chance, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Alan Opie and Roger Vignoles on Hyperion, the soaring Derek Lee Ragin, Philip Langridge, Gerald Finley and Steuatr Bedford on Naxos, or David Daniels, Ian Bostridge and Christopher Maltman, coupled with the typically searching pianism of Julius Drake.

The recent live account on Wigmore Hall Live with Mark Padmore, recorded as part of their 2012 Britten festival, is very well sung indeed, the close harmonies wonderfully achieved in a single take.



Also written in 1971: Gavin Bryars – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Next up: Purcell: Let the dreadful engines of eternal will

This entry was posted in Canticles, Italian, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89 | Good Morning Britten

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s