Realizations by Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, and Thomas Adès
About the Composer
Though in his own day Henry Purcell was already considered the most gifted of the English composers, as little is known about his life as is about Shakespeare's. Even his birthdate is unknown, as well as the exact identity of his father, although he was born into a family of musicians associated with the English court. At about nine or 10, he became a boy chorister in the Chapel Royal. After his voice broke, he held a series of increasingly important positions in the royal music establishments. In 1677, he was appointed a composer for the King's 24 Violins ensemble and two years later became the organist at Westminster Abbey. After 1685 when James II came to the throne and turned out to be an indifferent patron of the arts, Purcell turned to writing incidental music for the thriving London theater as well as creating several of the stunning British masques—a form that combined music, theater, and dance with extravagant stage effects. When he died (of causes we do not know) at the premature age of 36, he was mourned by London's musical and theatrical establishment and buried at the foot of Westminster Abbey's organ. In publishing the posthumous collection of his songs, Orpheus Britannicus, in 1698, Henry Playford rightly extolled his "peculiar Genius to express the Energy of English words, whereby he mov'd the Passions of all his Auditors."
The Purcell-Britten Connection
Though he also wrote significant instrumental works, Purcell especially excelled in vocal music both for chorus and solo voice. In addition to writing independent songs, he included quantities of songs in his incidental music for the theater; the 10 songs we will hear come from both sources.
Also primarily a composer for the voice, Benjamin Britten has often been called Purcell's heir; they were arguably the two greatest masters of setting English words to music. Thus, it is not surprising that Britten became obsessed with Purcell's music. In his joint recitals with tenor Peter Pears, he nearly always included a group of Purcell songs. Beginning as early as 1939 and continuing until 1971, he created realizations of 56 Purcell songs, as well as arrangements of Purcell's only opera, Dido and Aeneas, and his greatest masque, The Fairy Queen. In keeping with 17th-century practice, for his accompaniments Purcell wrote only a figured bass as an indication of harmonic movement, which the player would flesh out into chords and figurations according to his own taste; Britten thus devised "realizations" of these bass lines into full-fledged accompaniments designed for the modern piano.
Britten admitted he was not trying to create the type of authentic-performance-practice realizations that are so prized today. Nor did he intend his realizations to be the final word for contemporary performances of Purcell's songs; he expressed delight that his contemporary Michael Tippett (1905–1998) brought out his own realizations (as we will hear for "Music for a while"). In our own day, Thomas Adès (b. 1971) has done the same for "Full fathom five." However, Britten said it had been his "constant endeavor ... to apply to these realizations something of that mixture of clarity, brilliance, tenderness, and strangeness which shines out in all of Purcell's music." In the words of pianist and scholar Richard Walters, "Britten's realizations are one great composer's wonderfully subjective, thoughtful musical reactions to the work of a fellow great composer, one for whom he felt enormous kinship."
Listening to the Songs
One of Purcell's finest songs, "If music be the food of love" sets verse by Henry Heveningham, though the opening line comes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Purcell was so fascinated by this poem that he set it three times; we will hear the third and finest version from 1695. Expanding the song into three separate sections to encompass the text's progression, Purcell weaves ecstatic melismas for the words "sing," "joy," and "music," while later setting the word "sound" as a sonorous rising fanfare. Britten's opening flourishes for the piano conjure the sound of the original harpsichord.
A more elaborate song conceived for a royal occasion, "The Queen's Epicedium" is an "Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary" in 1694. (An epicedium is a funeral lament.) Its formal Latin text, "Incassum, Lesbia rogas" ("In vain, Lesbia, do you beseech") adopts the era's favorite pastoral conventions of nymphs and shepherds in an ideal Arcadia. Purcell deeply admired many of the 17th-century Italian opera composers, and one can hear the influence of Monteverdi in the powerful simplicity of the recitative-like sections that open and close the song. Italian, too, is the expressive chromaticism used for words like dolorum and moerore.
"Music for a while," here performed in Michael Tippett's realization, was composed in 1692 for a revival of John Dryden's Oedipus. It is sung by one of the priests trying to summon the spirit of King Laius to name the person who murdered him. Purcell was a master of creating songs on a ground—or repeating—bass pattern, over which the vocal line operates independently. Here, the bass pattern relentlessly ascends while the vocal line droops soothingly downward.
The sensuously gorgeous "Sweeter than roses" was written for a seduction scene by the courtesan Pandora in Richard Norton's Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country of 1695. The singer's slow, seductive melismas culminate in a triumphant paean to "victorious love."
Scholars today believe the famous Shakespearian song "Full fathom five" from The Tempest was not actually by Purcell, but perhaps by his pupil John Weldon. The realization here is by Thomas Adès, who also created his own dazzling operatic setting of this play, recently produced by the Metropolitan Opera.
"Turn then thine eyes" is a solo version of a duet from The Fairy Queen (1692), an anonymous adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Its duet origins are revealed in the many echo phrases of this coloratura whirlwind. "I'll sail upon the Dog-Star" is an incidental song for Thomas D'Urfey's A Fool's Preferment of 1688. Songs depicting madness were a popular form in Purcell's day; this one is sung by Lyonel, "a well-bred ingenious gentleman" who, having lost his mistress to the king, has fallen into temporary insanity. Flights of coloratura were as indispensable for Purcellian mad songs as they were for Donizetti and Bellini; Britten's vivacious accompaniment elaborates them delightfully.
In "Not all my torments can your pity move," Purcell enriches a rather conventional anonymous text about unrequited love with lavishly decorated vocal lines. Another anonymous text is "I take no pleasure in the sun's bright beams," a very early song from 1681. Its simple eloquence is enhanced by Britten's flowing accompaniment, which seems to take its inspiration from the "crystal river's purling streams" in the verse's second line.
Purcell sets William Fuller's heartfelt poem "A Morning Hymn" (1688) with appropriate modesty and concentration on the words; most of the song is in the form of a simple, yet highly expressive recitative.
—Janet E. Bedell
About the Works
Over a 27-year span in his career—between 1947 and 1974—Benjamin Britten turned five times to a form Henry Purcell had also explored: the canticle. A canticle can be defined as an extended vocal work on a subject of religious or spiritual significance, a form that not surprisingly appealed strongly to Britten, who was both a devout Christian and a pacifist.
With his eclectic taste in poetry, Britten chose very diverse texts for his Canticles, ranging from the naïveté of the anonymous medieval writer(s) of the 15th-century Chester Mystery Plays to the sophistication of 20th-century poems by Edith Sitwell and T. S. Eliot. What linked all these works was the tenor voice-specifically, the voice of Peter Pears, Britten's lifelong companion and muse. Whether composing for instruments or for the voice, Britten nearly always wrote for specific artists whom he admired and to whom he felt close. Pears's tenor was featured in all the Canticles, but in Canticle II, the great British contralto Kathleen Ferrier joined him, while Canticle IV featured a trio of countertenor, tenor, and baritone as the Three Wise Men. And since he was a pianist of exceptional qualities, Britten designed the accompaniments for himself to play, with the exception of Canticle V, which eschews piano in favor of harp. Listening to all five Canticles on a single program offers a fascinating survey of the evolution of Britten's style from his first years as a composer of international renown to his penultimate year, when the specter of imminent death was haunting his work.
Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine
Already under the spell of Purcell in 1947, Britten revealed that the form of Canticle I was modeled after Purcell's Divine Hymns. The verse is by Francis Quarles (1592–1644), a 17th-century mystical poet like the more famous John Donne and George Herbert. The poem is an expansion of a verse from the Song of Solomon: "My beloved is mine, and I am his." Although it is an ecstatic expression of the relationship between the believer and Christ, Britten undoubtedly also used it partly as a "coming-out" statement of his relationship with Pears. This canticle was created for a memorial concert in November 1947 for Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union. (Both Britten and Pears were pacifists throughout World War II.)
My Beloved Is Mine is structured as a miniature cantata in four sections. It opens as a barcarolle with a limpidly flowing piano part matching the water imagery of the first strophe. In the second, the singer erupts in ecstatic melismas as he describes the perfect union between two lovers—or spiritually between man and God. The Song of Solomon verse returns as a refrain, treated differently each time, between the strophes.
A dramatic recitative expresses the more forceful language of the poem's third stanza. Then the music morphs into a playful, staccato scherzo as the text becomes more overtly spiritual. The slow final section, beginning "He is my altar," then emerges as a more serious declaration of faith, expressed with moving simplicity.
Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac
Abraham and Isaac was written early in 1952 following the opera Billy Budd—another work about the sacrifice of innocence—and its telling of the Old Testament story has the dramatic impact of an operatic scene. The tenor sings the role of Abraham while a contralto, boy alto, or countertenor represents the young son Isaac. Ten years later, Britten was to borrow a theme from this music for the Offertorium of his War Requiem, in which Wilfred Owen's brutal retelling of this same story in his poem "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" is featured. The naively eloquent text is from one of the Chester Mystery Plays.
Canticle II opens arrestingly with the voices of countertenor and tenor singing in unison or close harmony to represent the voice of God demanding the sacrifice. The music then continues in innocent folk style, for Isaac does not yet know his father's intent. The revelation leads to an extraordinarily poignant duet between father and son, concluding with their tender farewells. This farewell music also reappears as the gentle closing canon the two voices sing to give the story's moral or message—a musical choice that perfectly suits the text's medieval origins.
Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain
Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain was composed for another memorial concert, this one in January 1955 for the young pianist Noel Mewton-Wood. A true chamber-music work, it adds a horn soloist-originally the legendary virtuoso Dennis Brain-to the ensemble of tenor and piano. Britten had earlier used this combination in his Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.
The verse is by Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), the most gifted member of the famously eccentric Sitwell family; it comes from The Canticle of the Rose and is subtitled "The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn." Thus, we know that the events of the London Blitz are here being likened to Christ's suffering on the cross (and the poem's fourth line makes that explicit).
The instrumental strands are mostly separated from the vocal part. The horn and piano open with a pitch-black theme of night and suffering that will return in six variations as a commentary between the poem's verses. The tenor enters with his own keening refrain theme, "Still falls the rain," referring to the falling bombs, the hammer blows that nailed Christ to the cross, the dripping of his blood. Minimally accompanied, the vocal line is stark and recitative-like, reflecting the emotional meaning of the words with exquisite precision. Late in the poem, Sitwell quotes from 16th-century poet Christopher Marlowe ("O I'll leap up to my God"), and Britten briefly shifts to Sprechstimme, or a cross between speech and singing. The compassionate final stanza unites horn and tenor as one voice in a similar fashion to Abraham and Isaac.
Canticle IV: The Journey of the Magi
Seventeen years passed before Britten wrote another canticle, and by 1971, he had developed a deep interest in the poetry of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). One of Eliot's best-known poems, "The Journey of the Magi," according to the Britten-Pears Foundation website, "foregoes the more traditional elements of the Christmas story and instead concentrates on the mundane aspects of the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem and their bewildered attempts to understand what they witness there."
Three singers are used to represent the Three Magi. Imitating the lumbering, irregular gait of their camels, the piano tells the story even more vividly than do the singers. Britten makes much use of repeated phrases—notably a rocking, close-harmony vocal refrain—as if the Magi were groping to understand their experience. As the canticle closes, we hear in the piano the Nativity-associated plainsong "Magi videntes stellam."
Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus
Canticle V comes from Britten's penultimate year, 1974. By this time, he was gravely ill with heart disease, and his mind was obsessed with the imminence of death. A stroke had partially paralyzed his right hand so that he could no longer play the piano; therefore, he substituted a harp as the tenor's accompanist. Another memorial work, this canticle was dedicated to William Plomer, librettist of Gloriana and the three Church Parables, whose death had greatly affected Britten.
T. S. Eliot's "The Death of Saint Narcissus" is a very early poem, perhaps dating from 1915. Britten himself admitted he didn't really understand its mystical conflation of the story of the early Christian Saint Narcissus (second-century Bishop of Jerusalem and hermit) with the classical myth of the fatally self-involved Narcissus. The poem's imagery is ambiguous, vivid, and deeply disturbing. Some have interpreted it as a metaphor for the creative artist's inability to realize his ideals in life ("he became a dancer to God"), others as a rather perverse meditation on Christian martyrdom. In this song, we experience Britten's spare, highly refined late style, with its complete mastery of text setting and the expressive capacities of the human voice.
—Janet E. Bedell