“The peculiar potency of his vocal music seems often to derive from his ability to convey to his listeners the unexplored area of a text which was always there but which needed revelation through his imaginative vision.”
–Britten, by Michael Kennedy, 2001
A severe bout of pneumonia when Benjamin Britten was three months old caused doctors to doubt his chances of leading a normal life, let alone of surviving. He recovered to find a great passion for composing at age five. While still in preparatory school, he attended a performance of The Sea conducted by its composer, Frank Bridge, and was, he said, “knocked sideways.” Bridge became his composition teacher and set a standard of unerring integrity and attention to technique that remained a lifelong influence in Britten’s evolution both as a composer and a pacifist.
By 1939, disillusioned by his country’s soaring unemployment and its opposition to homosexuality, and following in his friend W. H. Auden’s footsteps, Britten left England for the United States with his lover, tenor Peter Pears, who became his lifelong companion. Britten himself would remain publicly silent about his sexual preference. Pears (quoted in Kennedy’s biography) said “The word ‘gay’ was not in his vocabulary. . . he was more interested in the beauty, and therefore the danger, that existed in any relationship between human beings.”
Britten and Pears stayed in the United States for only three years before returning to England, but during that time Britten met the Boston Symphony’s conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, who arranged for his own music foundation to give Britten $1,000 toward the composition of an opera, which would become Peter Grimes, Britten’s entreé to worldwide fame. Koussevitzky would also back Britten’s first large-scale choral work, Spring Symphony.
In 1945 Britten chose a poem of the 18th-century poet Christopher Smart for a commissioned work to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton. During Smart’s seven years in a madhouse, beginning in 1756, he wrote the poem “Jubliate Agno” (“Rejoice in the Lamb”), which did not come to public attention until nearly 200 years later. Britten movingly encapsulates the poem’s half-mad and delightfully religious spirit.
As described by SF Choral conductor Robert Geary, Rejoice in the Lamb progresses from a quiet, invocational beginning to a jubilant series of ‘Let’ verses that invite man and beast to come before the Lord, ‘the perfection of excellence.’ Once all are gathered, they sing a beautiful hymn of creation and praise, ‘Hallelujah from the heart of God.’ Three succeeding solos are expressions of animistic praise, first of the cat, then of the mouse, then of flowers. Next we hear a lament section in which Smart describes some of the difficulties he encountered in his life and declares his confidence that he will be redeemed from his ‘hardships.’ Allusions to alphabetical and numerological symbolism lead to a joyful section in which the singers become musical instruments of praise, but it is the ‘trumpet of God’ that provides the climax to this section and the entry into a moment of ‘remarkable stillness’. The work ends with the return to the beautiful hymn of creation.
With extraordinary fidelity to the magpie quality of the words, Britten created a beautifully constructed cantata (ten sections in 15 minutes!). Vocal fanfare-arpeggios, organ metamorphosis into cat and mouse, dancing rhythms, and tender harmonies bewitch heart and soul.
— by Carol Talbeck