Anglican Notables – Benjamin Britten (Composers, Musicians) – 22 November

Anglican Notables – Benjamin Britten – 22 November

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Born 22 November 1913 (Lowestoft, England) – Died 4 December 1976 (Aldeburgh, England)

I choose Britten’s birthday, 22 November, as the day to remember him for two reasons.  Perhaps the most important is the fact that it coincides with the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.  The twenty-second of November also falls after the annual mind of Henry Purcell, who was one of the most significant influences on Britten’s work as a composer.

Indeed, one way to appreciate Britten’s music, both sacred and secular, is to think of him as a mid-twentieth-century Henry Purcell.  As was the case with Purcell, Britten knew how to select excellent texts and excelled at setting them.  Also like Purcell, Britten, though a consummate composer in every musical genre, was especially at home in writing music for the stage, mostly operas.

Britten had been raised in the Low Church tradition.  Britten’s mother, Edith, took the family (usually without her husband in attendance) “to St. John’s Church [Church of England] in Lowestoft, which had a Low Church evangelical background.”[1]  Edith also had some level of involvement with Christian Scientists, though Christian Scientists in 1930s England had a rather fundamentalist appeal in England which “would not have seemed in any way inconsistent with [Britten’s mother’s] continuing allegiance to Low Church Anglicanism.”[2]  This Low Church upbringing manifests itself in the liturgical texts Britten chose to set to music.  They are all texts taken from the Prayer Book’s Morning Prayer service, which would have been the form of worship on Sundays at St. John’s.  Britten never wrote a setting of the Evening Canticles.  He did write one setting of the ordinary of the Eucharistic liturgy, the Missa brevis in D, Op. 63, but that was in Latin, was written to be performed by the choir at the Catholic Westminster Cathedral, and was written for a special occasion, which was the retirement of George Malcolm as organist and choirmaster at Westminster Cathedral.

Britten was not a regular churchgoer throughout his adult life, and he gave conflicting answers when asked about his identity as a Christian generally and as an Anglican in particular.  But he was one of those early- and mid-twentieth-century English composers who respected the institution of the Church of England and identified with it at least as the religion of the tribe, so to speak.  He was happy to write music for the church and also enjoyed writing non-liturgical music that, because of its subject matter, could just as easily be performed in church as in the concert hall or on the opera stage.  For example, his opera for amateurs, Noye’s Fludde, a setting of the Chester Mystery Plays account of Noah, was first performed in St. Bartholomew’s Church, Orford.

Among Britten’s works either intended for liturgical services or suitable for them, his most notable are “A Hymn to the Virgin” (1930); the Te Deum in C (1935); the “Festival Te Deum in E”, Op. 32 (1944); “Hymn to St. Peter,” Op. 56a (1955); “Antiphon,” (setting a text by George Herbert) (1956); Venite Exultemus Domino (Psalm 95) (1961); the Jubilate Deo in C (1961); and “A Hymn of St Columba” (1962).  Individual sections of A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (1942) can work liturgically as anthems.  Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 (1943) is too long to be suitable as an anthem, in my opinion, but I have heard it performed in place of a sermon (with a brief introduction by the priest, which introduction did manage to weave in the Scripture readings).  Beautiful though Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia” (1942) is, aspects of W. H. Auden’s poem, which provides the text for the anthem, render it problematic for liturgy.

By the early 1960s, the demand for new works in secular genres was such that Britten effectively left writing church music behind.  But again, he never communicated a sense that he disliked writing church music or found it in any way restrictive of his expression as a composer.  Indeed, a recurring theme among British composers of any stature—nearly all of whom consider it an honor to write church music, at least at some point in their careers—is that they enjoy the challenges of writing within the parameters set for composing church music, such as the careful selection of texts, a generally greater expectation of musical accessibility than one would have when writing for the concert hall or opera stage, and so on.  And though Britten’s focus on church music tapered off during the last seventeen years of his career, the Christian tradition was constantly present in his oeuvre.  His entire career made considerable use of the “distinctively Christian heritage of plainsong and hymn tunes in a wide variety of works covering the whole of his career,”[3] and he wrote many works that set Christian texts or were based on Christian themes.  (If you have never listened to his Canticle II: “Abraham and Isaac,” Op. 51, which is a setting of the Abraham-and-Isaac story as interpreted through the Chester Mystery Plays, it would be seventeen minutes well spent and can be an experience of auditio divina, so thoughtful and moving is the setting.)

Though Britten can be thought of as a twentieth-century Purcell in some ways, there are significant differences between the two great English composers.  In contrast to Purcell’s Baroque idiom, Britten is often thought of as being Neo-Classical because of the spareness of his musical language.  (This will come as a surprise to most of the public, who are familiar with Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra but with little else from Britten’s oeuvre.  But Young Person’s Guide is meant to emulate the Baroque musical idiom in some ways, including the contrasts between solo instruments and a full orchestra as well as the fact that it draws on a theme by Purcell himself.)

Another contrast between Britten and Purcell is that Purcell lived in a time and place when Christian identity was taken for granted among the educated.  Not so in Britten’s case.  This might help explain why Britten was more cagey and elusive than not on the topic of his identity as a Christian.  His insertion of an anachronistically Christian element in his opera The Rape of Lucretia came under a huge amount of criticism.  Though his comments on that episode were limited, they indicate he felt the sting of that criticism acutely.  Also, Britten’s moral conduct, especially around boys, would have landed him in legal difficulties in our day, and his conduct around men nearly did land him in legal difficulties in his own day.  But there is a sense that he could not and would not fully renounce his Christian identity and what that meant in the way of not transgressing certain moral boundaries (none of the boys to whom he showed excessive attention ever made an accusation of improper conduct) and in the sense of yearning to find rest for a restless heart in God.  Listen to the opening of Britten’s Canticle II—the slow, contemplative chords—and ask whether this was an artist who knew nothing of profound prayer.

Another difference between Britten and Purcell is that though both of them might have acknowledged that their music for church was not their best work, Purcell had a better intuitive understanding of an organic sense of development within the Anglican choral heritage, no matter how difficult that development can be to define.  Hence the comment Herbert Howells made concerning Purcell’s effort to find a “dignified compromise” by which to defend Anglican church music’s “quiet and disciplined ways” against the “frivolous instrumental hand”[4] expected in the Baroque.  On the other hand, Britten, perhaps because of his a-liturgical upbringing in the Low Church tradition, has left no statements indicating he gave serious thought to the characteristics of the Anglican choral heritage.  The epistolary evidence shows that Britten was keen to write liturgical music for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, when Prince Philip and Britten corresponded about the possibility in the early 1960s. (For reasons not altogether clear, Britten’s Jubilate Deo of 1961 was the only part of the project realized.)  But the then-organist and composer of St. George’s, Sir William Harris, found the Jubilate to be too “jolly” for the liturgy.[5]

Harris’s opinion is only one view, of course.  And the continued place of Britten’s choral music in liturgies attests to the fact that “jolly” is not always out-of-place.  My own perception of Britten’s sacred music as music for the liturgy, however, is that it tends to feel too wordy for that context.  Britten was so clever at setting texts that there is an intuitive sense one must maintain a laser-like focus on every word and phrase.  This is what we expect of ourselves in the concert hall.  But that kind of rigor is perhaps a bit much to expect in liturgy.  Again, Britten’s Low Church upbringing might have something to do with this, since a characteristic of Low Church worship is to favor sermons—words and plenty of them—whereas the High Church emphasis on sacraments and liturgy allows for more silence, recollection, and even the “liturgical stammer,” which is meaningless and yet an attempt at expressing the church’s liturgical experience of the inexpressible, the apophatic.[6]

Even if Britten was not as prolific and—as some would have it—not as successful in his church music as have been other composers who have written in the Anglican choral tradition, the insertion of his musical idiom into the Anglican musical heritage in the first half of the twentieth century came at an important moment.  Britten’s Neo-Classical idiom and the Impressionist idiom of his contemporary, Herbert Howells, both contributed significantly to gently nudging the Anglican choral heritage beyond its recent Edwardian triumphs.  Anglican choral music of the mid-twentieth century could so easily have become a pasty imitation of Parry, Stanford, and others.  Moreover, the fact that Britten, Howells, and others wrote music for the church so intelligently and sensitively no doubt helps explain why, when many Catholic musicians in the 1960s jumped on the folk-music bandwagon, the artistic and spiritual quality of recent Anglican choral music was its own justification for curbing at least some of the faux-pop excesses in Anglican worship.  Musical mediocrity (and worse) has made its inroads within Anglicanism in the past several decades, certainly.  But new choral works of high quality continue to be written—and are expected to be written—for Anglican choirs.  It would be impossible to imagine how different this situation would have been without Britten’s church music.

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

[1] Graham Elliott, Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 41

[2] Elliott, 74.

[3] Elliott, 74.

[4] Herbert Howells, broadcast on the BBC Home Service from Christ Church, Oxford, 14 November 1943, quoted in Christopher Palmer, Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration (London: Thames, 1992), 397.

[5] Elliott, 86.

[6] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 176.

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