Listening to Britten – The National Anthem

The Arrival of HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh by Edward Seago. Photo (c) Estate of Edward Seago courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

The National Anthem, arranged for chorus (double SATB) and orchestra (17 August 1961, revised January 1967, Britten aged 47)

Dedication For the Leeds Festival 1961
Text unknown
Duration 2’45”

Background and Critical Reception

Who could have foreseen that a composer classed as a conscientious objector in 1941 would go on to arrange his own national anthem just twenty years later? Yet that is the position in which Britten found himself, completing the task in hand for the Leeds Festival in 1961.

The arrangement is for conventional SATB choir, and a sizeable orchestra with wind, brass and percussion as well as strings. Britten arranges both verses, the first set in E flat major before he modulates into B flat major for the second verse.

The arrangement was used at the end of the 2013 BBC Proms in recognition of the centenary of Britten’s birth.


Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, but how refreshing it is to hear a national anthem that covers all the emotions, from the rapt wonder of the subdued first verse through to the unbuttoned jubilation of the second. It is by far the most naturally patriotic thing Britten has ever written, and tags on neatly in its style to Gloriana.

It provides a thrilling alternative to the anthem with which we are so familiar, and it is structured so that the second verse, so often omitted in accounts of the anthem, comes right to the fore, the E flat major tonality opening out beautifully into B flat.

Recordings used

London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Britten’s recording, just shy of three minutes, is perfectly paced and vigorously performed once the dynamic level swells for the second verse. Before that, the hush of the chorus is beautifully achieved.


The only version of Britten’s arrangement on Spotify comes from a disc entitled A Royal Celebration from 2007, and it can be heard by clicking here.

Also written in 1961: Hoddinott – Concerto for Piano, Winds and Percussion

Next up: Dulcibella, when e’er I sue for a kiss

This entry was posted in Choir and orchestra, Choral, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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