Listening to Britten – Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89

Ruined Chapel, Isle of Mull, 1975 by John Piper. (c) The Piper Estate. Image used courtesy of Tate

Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89 – for tenor and harp (12-22 January 1971, Britten aged 57)

Dedication In loving memory of William Plomer
Text T.S. Eliot
Language English
Duration 7′


An extract from the fifth canticle, performed by tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson and harpist Sioned Williams, can be heard by clicking next to track no.5 on this page of the canticles on the Hyperion website.

Background and Critical Reception

The Death of Narcissus was the first work completed by Britten after his heart operation. Because he was no longer fit enough to play piano with Peter Pears in either recitals or recordings, he chose no longer to write for the instrument, turning instead to the harp for instrumental colour. This also enabled him to write more music for Osian Ellis, with whom he had established a close performing relationship that had already yielded the Suite for Harp and some of the more elaborate writing in the church Parables.

Concurrent with these developments in Britten’s performing life was a strong reawakening of his love for the poetry of T.S. Eliot, whose prose he had already set in the fourth canticle, The Journey of the Magi.

Commentators of the composer find the last of the five canticles to be a mysterious work, but also note the work shows no signs of slackening in the composer’s ability or intensity. Michael Kennedy writes that ‘This short setting showed that Britten had lost none of his power to enter wholly into a poet’s world and to find the musical symbolism and structure to match it. Writing for the harp seems to have spurred his imagination to new but economical effects, yet there is nothing ungenerous about the musical span, and the writing for the voice continues the broad but subtle expressiveness which distinguished Aschenbach’s part in Death in Venice.’

Michael Oliver provides a succinct summing-up, describing the work thus: ‘The vocal line is lyrical but spare: despite its length (seven minutes) the whole work has the quality of an austerely beautiful but enigmatic epigram.’


As with the previous canticles, The Death of Saint Narcissus follows immediately on the back of a large scale stage work – and here it is the main character of Death in Venice who casts a long shadow over proceedings.

Indeed, the canticle could be seen as an extended recitative for Aschenbach, especially when heard as sung by Peter Pears, for it is written in a similar style to the recitatives in the opera, where the author confides his thoughts and gathering manic state in the company of a piano.

It is a mysterious utterance, the murky depths of the harp introducing the song and depicting the shadows. Late on it proceeds also to draw the tree Eliot describes, ‘Twisting its branches among each other and tangling its roots among each other’.

As Michael Oliver notes, this is a truly enigmatic piece, and is difficult to fully understand. It is also unnerving at points in the text, with a particularly uncomfortable frisson when Britten is setting the words ‘Then he had been a young girl, caught in the words by a drunken old man’.

It is a dark, shadowy utterance, written under the shadow of impending death but lightened slightly by the silvery figurations of the harp. Ultimately, however, it is kept in the murk by the relatively unhinged tenor line that brings sharp parallels to Death in Venice, still so fresh in the mind.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Decca)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Aline Brewer (harp) (Virgin Classics)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Osian Ellis (harp) (Naxos)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Sioned Williams (harp) (Hyperion)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Lucy Wakeford (harp) (Wigmore Hall Live)
Ben Johnson (tenor), Lucy Wakeford (harp) (Signum Classics)

This is one of the Britten works where age plays a factor in the choice of final version. Peter Pears is the obvious choice for this recording, particularly given its place in Britten’s output – for by then he was writing for Pears as a performer beginning the autumn of his career, post-Death in Venice.

That said, there are still many fine performances from much younger tenors. Mark Padmore and Ben Johnson’s recent versions are appropriately mysterious, with excellent harp playing from Lucy Wakeford in both recordings, while Philip Langridge also gives an excellent and rather nervy account, with the advantage of the reappearance of Osian Ellis. Anthony Rolfe Johnson, too, fully communicates the nervous energy of the work and its inconclusive nature.


A playlist for the fifth canticle can be accessed here, including the recordings by Peter Pears, Philip Langridge, Mark Padmore, Ian Bostridge and a new one from Daniel Norman and Hugh Webb on Stone Records.

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, English, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89

  1. garethhevans says:

    Osian Ellis – someone to hear more of.

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Lord! I Married Me A Wife | Good Morning Britten

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