Sunday, 27 January 2013

Britten Appears - and inspires

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Britain's most bankable composer (as the receipts show), Benjamin Britten. British critics have long agonised over our country's seeming inability to sell our own composers abroad. Ben is the exception. He sells. As I'm slightly ambivalent about Britten's music myself, I hope this year will also sell him to me.

As a first step in celebrating the Britten centenary (which BBC Radio 3 is already fully in the swing of), I want to talk about a piece of his that I'm already sold on - the Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op.27

Written in the early 1940s, it seems to me to be one of Ben's most beautiful and enduring works. He was taken with the idea of hymning the patron saint of music given that he himself was born on her saints day. Setting W.H. Auden and written for unaccompanied chorus, its opening bars initiate us into the delights of its main theme. This dancing tune, introduced by women's voices over a sequential skeleton of itself (built on interlocking falling fourths) sung by the men, acts as a refrain ("Blessed Cecilia/Appear in visions to all musicians/Appear and inspire"), sung in unison at the close of the piece's first section (based on the same tune), being re-harmonised at the end of the second section, being developed in the third, then closing the piece gently. It's a magical idea and its nature gives rise to many enchantments of harmony. The second section sounds for all the world like a (very fast) children's round and is a breath of dancing joy until the breaking-in of Blakean experience at its close. The third section is the most complex part of the score, contrapuntal and dominated by a descending, trudging ostinato. Despair, however, is banished as the opening mood, reintroduced ravishingly by a solo soprano, carries us towards the luminous closing pages. 

Is it the Englishman in me that responds so strongly to this piece? Is this one of those pieces the rest of the world take to too, or not?

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