CD134 Benjamin Britten: The Company of Heaven & other works
Back Bay Chorale and Orchestra, Boston
The Company of Heaven (1937)
Phyllis Hoffman, narrator
Peter Watchhorn, narrator
Anne Harley, soprano
William Hite, tenor
Peter Krasinski, organist
Back Bay Chorale and Orchestra, Boston
Julian Wachner, director
Te Deum in C for Chorus and Organ (1934)
The Marsh Chapel Choir,
Cathleen Ellis, soprano
Scott Jarrett, organist
Julian Wachner, director
Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria (1946) for Organ Solo
Julian Wachner, organist
No. VI. “Heaven is Here” from The Company of Heaven by Britten
The Company of Heaven (1937)
The Company of Heaven was first performed in a radio broadcast by the BBC National Programme on September 29, 1937, conducted by Trevor Harvey. It received its first complete concert preformance in The Maltings, Snape, on June 10, 1989, during the Aldeburgh Festival, and its first performance in the United States on December 3, 1989, by the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota, conducted on both occasions by Philip Brunelle.
The first Boston performance was on April 14, 1998, by the Boston University Repertory Chorus, conducted by Scott Jarrett. The work is scored for soprano and tenor solo, chorus, narrators, strings, organ, and timpani.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is recognized as one of the greatest composers of this century. He grew up in the shadow of figures such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Holst. His professors at the Royal College tried to push him in the direction of these composers, teaching the style of composition closely associated with Vaughan Williams. Britten found no interest in this style, which made much use of modal harmonies from the past. The young Britten preferred the music being composed on the Continent: the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. He found a mentor and confidant in Frank Bridge. His respect for his teacher is evidenced by his composition Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Despite his lack of interest in the British school of composition, one influence seems clear: choral music. From Hymn to the Virgin of 1930 to his final composition in 1976, Welcome Ode, vocal and choral music fills the Britten catalogue.
Britten composed The Company of Heaven during August and September of 1937, as a result of a BBC commission. The piece was commissioned for the celebration of Michaelmas Day, September 29, on which day the first performance was given via radio broadcast. Robert Ellis Roberts, who collaborated with Britten in compiling the text, wrote in Radio Times prior to the performance "...one composer has written all the music especially for the programme. He and I have discussed the plan together, and he has, by his music, given to it precisely that unity of thought and feeling which is so desirable. The composer is Benjamin Britten, who is known as one of the most brillinat of our young musicians." With the idea of a radio broadcast in mind, Britten and Roberts created a full scale cantata, with spoken texts interpolated. The Company of Heaven was only one of twenty-five commissions on behalf of the BBC for incidental radio music between 1937 and 1947. (A similar commission inspired William Walton to compose Balshazzar's Feast.) After the first performance in 1937, the manuscript of the full score remained with Trevor Harvey, the conductor, and was virtually forgotten until the 1950s, when he rediscovered the score and revived the work in abbreviated form in 1956. The Company of Heaven was not performed again until the 1989 Aldeburgh Festival, where it was given a complete performance, including all of the spoken text.
The work is constructed in three parts. Part I begins with Britten's representation of Chaos followed by the creation of the angel spirits. The interpolated spoken text recounts Lucifer's fall from Heaven. The orchestral introduction, played almost entirely without harmony, represents pre-Creation with an absence of concord. It concludes with melodic fragments of the closing chorale "Lasst uns erfeuen," in a style to be heard again ten years later in St. Nicholas (1947). The opening choral "Hymn of Praise" is replete with the major minor sonorities found in so many of Britten's compositions.
Part II, entitled "Angels in Scripture,"sets Biblical encounters with angels from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Of musical interest is Britten's setting of the plainsong melody and Athelstan Riley's translation of the Latin hymn "Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels" from the The English Hymnal. The orchestration is strictly an alternation of tonic and dominant chords in D minor. But the chorus and soprano soloist treat D as the dominant for the first two verses, creating cross relations between the leading tone of the orchestra's dominant harmonies against the melodic C-natural in the voices. For the final verse, the voices transpose down a fourth, allowing the tenor and soprano soloists to soar with their descants. Despite the shift in tonic, the cross relation is still present through the lowered seventh of the hymn meolody. Britten was particularly satisfied with this section's concluding chorus for the male voices. "War in Heaven" is entirely spoken/shouted as the orchestra violently depicts the Revelation prophecies. The cross relations of the previous movement appear to be resolved by the organ's persistent minor sonorities. To further depict "War in Heaven," Britten scores a very prominant soloistic part for timpani with instructions that the part be played using wooden sticks. This movement ends with a return of the Chaos melodies heard at the beginning of the work.
Part III, "Angles in Common Life and at Our Death, " offers an entirely new perspective. A dramatic shift from the Biblical myths, the Part III texts are a compilation of modern poetry and folk legend. The atmosphere rises out of the beginning soprano solo "Heaven is Here, " marked placevole. This solo was originally sung by Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, for whom Britten had composed the virtuoistic orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers in 1936. The following solo for tenor is almost certainly the first solo Britten ever composed for Peter Pears, with whom he had just become acquainted. The tenor sings of a dreamlike encounter with "little glittering Spirits." Next are two short pieces of purely incidental music for the orchestra, separated by an a cappella chorus, which develops the solo line first heard in "Hail Mary" in Part II. The final chorus is skillful harmonization of the familiar chorale tune "Lasst uns erfreuen," set with Athelstan Riley's text "Ye watchers and ye holy ones," used in The English Hymnal. The soprano and tenor join the chorus for the harmonic weaving of the second verse. The piece ends with a return of the Chaos motives from the first movement, but unlike the ending of Part II, this material gives way to the atmospheric return of "Heaven is Here, " the final resolution. Now published in full score and vocal/choral score, The Company of Heaven is a prime example of Britten's pre-war compositional output.
Te Deum in C
The twenty-year old Benjamin Britten wrote his first Te Deum setting in 1934, a pivotal year in his career. This year was to see the premieres of the angular Op. 6 Suite for violin and piano, the Simple Symphony, A Boy Was Born, and the Holiday Diary for piano. The Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings gave Britten his first official recognition outside of Great Britain, at the ISCM Festival in Florence. The Te Deum, disparaged by Vaughan Williams as "eight minutes of C major" is in fact a minor masterwork, making extraordinary use of economical harmonic and gesural resources. The first section consists of the choir building a C major chord for a full minute. This stasis, anticipating the minimalist movement by thirty years, allows Britten to place enormous emphasis on the words "Holy, Holy. Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, " which are set over the first change in the harmony. "Heaven and earth are full of thy glory" is presented in a rich, late Romantic texture reminiscent of the Anglican choral tradition typical of Vaughan Williams, Stanford, and Parry. Britten returns to the simpler texture in the next section, but allows a shifting tonal center to provide movement. Britten employs an ethereal treble solo in the central section as a device which serves to personalize the prayer and to join the worship of a single soul to the corporate worship in the church. All of this preceding thematic material is brought together in an exceedingly beautiful and peaceful close.
Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria
Though Britten's departure form the late Romantic "pastoral school" of English composition is often discussed, that continuity which he draws from it is often ignored. In fact, he shares with his predecessors, Elgar, Holst, and Vaughan Willimas, a reverence for the Renasissance as a "golden age" in music. This is made evident in his Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria, a lesser-known work which concludes this recording. The theme is first announced in deep bass notes in the manner of an antiphon. Transposing and setting this theme in different registers, Britten uses it as the foundation of the entire prelude. The fugue is more freely constructed; Bitten uses the same theme as the head motif for the fugue subject, but composes the countersubject freely. In this short piece, Britten shows both his affinity and separation from the past masters of composition.