Listening to Britten – Sacred and Profane, Op.91


Detail of painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Sacred and Profane, Op.91 – Eight medieval lyrics for unaccompanied voices (SSATB) (December 1974 – January 1975, Britten aged 61)

1 St Godrick’s hymn (mid 12th century)
2 I mon waxe wod (later 13th century)
3 Lenten is come (later 13th/earlier 14th century)
4 The long night (earlier 13th century)
5 Yif ic of luve can (earlier 14th century)
6 Carol (earlier 14th century)
7 Ye that pasen by (mid 14th century)
8 A death (13th century)

Dedication For P.P. and the Wilbye Consort
Text Various, as above
Language Early English
Duration 15′

Audio clips – a clip from each lyric can be heard from the recording made The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, by clicking here – or alternatively from the recording made by the RIAS-Kammerchor conducted by Marcus Creed, which can be heard here

Background and Critical Reception

Britten returned to choral composition in 1975 with as much vigour as he could muster – and this time he had Peter Pears’ Wilbye Consort in mind. The new piece was a set of eight ‘medieval lyrics’, written for five individual singers – though nowadays they are much more likely to find performance from a complete choir. Because of the unfamiliarity of the language he included a modern translation of the words, together with a phonetic guide to each word in italics in the score.

Michael Kennedy writes how ‘the poems are from the mid-twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century and are set in the original mediaeval English (the modern English ‘translation’ is an essential in a programme-book if audiences are to know that ‘This fowles sing-eth ferly fele, And wliteth on huere wynne wele’ means ‘These birds sing, wonderfully merry, And warble in their abounding joy’).

He describes the settings as ‘a conspectus of Britten’s vocal styles, from the simple madrigalian lilt of the third lyric, ‘Lenten is to come’ to the late, epigrammatic concentration of Yif ic of luve can (If I know of Love)‘.

Paul Spicer also notes the ‘complication of the requirement to sing properly pronounced medieval words’, concluding that ‘this work is not for the faint-hearted. It requires and repays serious effort, detailed preparation for the pronunciation issues and decisions about what to do, for instance, in Yif ic of luve can where the first soprano(s) is/are given a completely free part, differently barred and notated from the rest of the choir.’

For Spicer, ‘one of the most satisfying elements of Sacred and Profane, to my mind, is the humour and boundless good nature which Britten lifts from these earthy poems. But everything is not always as it might appear. I mon waxe wod, for instance, with its ostinato rhythm set up by the two soprano parts in the first bar, may seem an amusing song all about birds in the wood and fish in the river – but then the alto(s) sing ‘and I must go mad, much sorrow I live with…’.

Arnold Whittall also notes the juxtaposition of light and dark, judging that ‘the directness of style in the last of Britten’s all too rare returns to the a cappella medium of A Boy Was Born and the Hymn to St Cecilia makes it as disturbingly memorable as many of his more ambitious and extended creations.’

Thoughts

In which Britten adds yet another new language to his song settings, though in the case of Sacred and Profane – as Michael Kennedy says – it is pretty much essential to have the translations to hand so that the subject matter can be easily determined. The old English is tricky to grasp when following on the page but intriguing to hear in the flesh.

It helps that Britten’s responses to the text are extremely vivid, so that in the urgent I mon waxe wod the rapid movements of the birds and the fishes can be clearly heard, while the final song, A death, carries the weariness of the end of life but then casts it away like a heavy coat.

As the cycle’s title indicates these are songs of emotional extremes, some of them brief but all of them characterised by a sharp concentration of feeling. The extremes are perhaps most evident in that final song, which moves quickly from a soft resolution to a shout. ‘Earthy’ seems to be the best word to describe the collection, though there are moments of radiance in St Godric’s Hymn, which harks back to the unaccompanied writing of the Flower Songs and the Hymn to St Cecilia. The hymn subsides to a cold, clear and rather beautiful finish, maintaining the consistency of choral writing evident as early as A Boy Was Born.

Each of the eight songs is a miniature treasure – Yif ic of luve can and the Carol especially so – and Britten succeeds in weaving them together for a complete and enlivening concert experience. They are of course extremely difficult to sing – but like so much Britten, not impossible. The more you hear them the more they come to life.

Recordings used

The Wilbye Consort / Peter Pears (Eloquence)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (CORO)
Polyphony / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Vasari Singers / Jeremy Backhouse (EMI)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer (Chandos)

If you hear this cycle sung by the Wilbye Singers the effect on the ear is very different. Britten is deliberately writing for this virtuoso ensemble, and there are surprising examples of close harmony that become much more evident to the ear.

Yet all choral versions of this set are very well performed too, and I especially warmed to Polyphony with Stephen Layton and the RIAS choir with Marcus Creed, both of whom get impressive depth and clarity to the bigger textures but still convey the intricacy of Britten’s part writing.

The Sixteen and the Finzi Singers under Paul Spicer are very fine too. I did prefer the larger sound to the leaner textures of the Wilbye Singers, but they do throw more of the ‘profane’ side of Britten into sharper relief.

Spotify

This playlist presents recordings of Sacred and Profane by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers, the RIAS-Chor conducted by Marcus Creed, the Vasari Singers and a further recording from The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge.

Also written in 1975: Rzewski – The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

Next up: A Birthday Hansel, Op.92

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