Sacred and ProfaneThe Swedish Chamber Choir
Benjamin Britten was born and spent most of his life in Suffolk on the East coast of England. His exceptional musical gifts were nurtured from an early age, and his adoring mother would spur her prodigy to greater efforts with the incantation “Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Britten!” His very earliest compositions were song-settings of favourite poems, and vocal music, whether solo, choral or operatic, was to remain the pre-eminent medium of his music. The works recorded here span most of Britten’s creative life, from A hymn to the virgin, a schoolboy work to Sacred and profane, written in the year before his death.
A hymn to the Virgin was composed at the age of 16 and perfectly demonstrates the young composer’s melodic gift and sensitivity to text – the rapturous climax on the word “Lady” in the third verse is perfectly placed before the calm coda.
The dominating, even overwhelming artistic influence on Britten in the late thirties was the poet W.H. Auden whom Britten met in 1935. They were to collaborate on a huge variety of work over the next five years, culminating in Brittens’s first major stage-work, the school-opera Paul Bunyan in 1940. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Britten, a convinced pacifist, had followed Auden’s lead and moved to the usa, with his friend, the tenor Peter Pears. The three-year stay proved to be the turning point in Brittens’s life: artistically he was to free himself from Auden’s influence and acquire a commission from Koussevitsky for a full-scale opera and, emotionally, he was to find a life-time love in his relationship with Pears.
Britten was born on St Cecilia’s day and while Auden’s text apostrophises the patron saint of musicians it is in fact Britten himself whom the poet addresses in Hymn to St Cecilia. The first of the three poems, “In a garden shady”, is set in calmly lilting triads, evoking both music’s spiritual purity and its underlying passions. A rapt unison prayer, “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions”, leads to the second poem, “I cannot grow … I only play”. This is a will o’ the wisp scherzo, delineating what Auden saw as the limitations of Britten’s emotional never-never land. The prayer now returns, richly harmonized, paving the way for the final poem where Auden both refers to Britten’s trauma “lost innocence” and suggests a way forward: “O wear your tribulation like a rose”. The initial A minor calm, ruffled only by the basses’ nagging ostinato “O calm of spaces”, turns to A major for a moment of pathos with the soprano solo “O dear white children”. Violin, timpani, and flute are evoked by soloists, stressing the futility of shame, while it is the final trumpet fanfare in the tenor which provides a resolution, “Oh wear your tribulation like a rose”. A return to the prayer, now harmonized by the opening triads, sets a seal of serene content on this extraordinary self-portrait.
Shepherd’s carol is a whimsical p.s. in the Britten-Auden oeuvre, composed in 1944 with no obvious connection to Christmas. The “pinkie” referred to is a finger.
The triumphant success of the opera Peter Grimes in 1945 established Britten as an operatic composer all over the world. The dramatic use of the chorus was widely admired, and Old Joe has gone fishing is sung as a rowdy round in the pub at the climax of the first act.
In 1946 Britten launched his own opera company: the English Opera Group, partly funded by a donation from Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst of Dartington. Pioneering educationalists, they were also keen gardeners and Britten composed the Five flower songs for their 25th wedding anniversary in 1950. In the first song Herrick’s daffodils welcome the Spring as if tossed about on a mad March day. Clare’s four sweet months follow, melting into each other in succulent counterpoint. Crabbe’s marsh flowers provide a dark contrast – this “contracted flora” is the botanical backdrop to Peter Grimes’ tragedy. In Clare’s evening primrose the transience of nocturnal beauty is celebrated in lush harmonies, a moment of sublime repose before the finale. The ballad of green broom tells the story of a young man who makes good by marrying into money (perhaps an affectionate dig at the source of the Elmhirst fortune?). After a hesitant start the story is told voice by voice against simple squeeze-box harmonies developing an almost operatic intensity on its way (the lady’s imperious summons “go fetch me the boy!” is pure Lady Billows) to a riotous dénouement.
The opera Gloriana was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It is an intimate portrait of Elizabeth I and her courtiers, in particular her love for the Earl of Essex. The Choral dances are taken from a masque performed when the Queen visits Norwich. The first three dances present the figures of time and concord as the chief components in the peace and plenty which Elizabeth’s subjects enjoy. The fourth and fifth dances contrast the country girls’ madcap flower-gathering with sturdier yeoman offerings “from fen and meadow”. The final dance is one of stately homage to a charismatic monarch.
Sacred and profane belongs to the handful of small-scale masterpieces which Britten composed in the last three years of his life. Given Britten’s failing health it is, unsurprisingly, his darkest choral music where suffering and death are constant preoccupations. The eight texts are anonymous lyrics from the 12th to 14th centuries and are arranged in a balanced form (sppp sssp).
A deceptively simple C major setting of St Godric’s hymn opens the work and is followed by three profane lyrics. In I mon wax wode the text is divided between the mechanically chirping sopranos’ “Fowles in the frith” and the basses, plodding in chains of ghostly thirds “mulch sorrow”, leaving the altos to deliver the punch line in increasing desperation. “Lenten is come” is a light-footed welcome to Spring which subsides into sadness. With “The long night” the mood, mirroring the seasons, turns colder and darker as summer gives way to winter. The second half of the suite opens with Yif ic of luve can. The first section sets the scene of the crucifixion in a few eloquently halting phrases. When repeated, a soaring soprano is superimposed, gradually freeing itself from the choir to make the impassioned cry “Yif ic of luve can” – it is perhaps the most intensely religious expression in all of Britten’s music. Carol, a whimsical parody of yule-tide jollity, provides a lightening of mood and intensity before the final sacred lyric, Ye that passen by, it too a scene from the passion, a translation of the familiar text “O vos omnes”. The final number, A death, is a macabre catalogue of decay, exercising a Bosch-like fascination on the listener through the continual variety of choral texture. At the last minute despair is avoided with the defiant, devil-may-care E major rout “Of al this world ne give I it a pese”. Though the key is the same it is a very different leave-taking from Aschenbach’s farewell in Death in Venice or the concluding question mark of the third quartet, much as though Britten, through his music, was testing the validity of different responses to his own impending death.
If there is one common denominator in this enormously varied repertoire, then it is surely the inspirational response to the texts, a gift which Britten shared with his great artistic forbear Henry Purcell – “a peculiar genius for expressing the energy of English words”.
Recorded in Vasakyrkan, Göteborg, February–September 2003
Recording, editing & mastering: Per Sjösten, Sound Processing AB?www.sound.se