Sunday, November 21, 2010

Britten for St. Cecilia's Day

Monday, November 22, is the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, and also the 97th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  To celebrate, here are three works (one of them a re-upload) by that great genius, all dating from the 1940s and all recorded within a year of their premières.  First, appropriately enough, is his "Hymn to St. Cecilia," Op. 27, for a capella 5-part chorus, with words by W. H. Auden.  It was begun while Britten was living in the USA, but not completed until he was on his way back home to England in 1942, the ship he was on under constant threat from German U-boats.  This first recording of the piece features the Fleet Street Choir, an amateur group that racked up several important gramophonic firsts, including first complete recordings of Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, and Randall Thompson's "Alleluia."

Britten: Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27
(+ Holst: This Have I Done For My True Love, Op. 34, No. 1)
Fleet Street Choir, directed by T. B. Lawrence
Recorded January 28, 1943
English Decca K 1088-89, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 77.18 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 29.33 MB)

Next, something rather more familiar - the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell), Op. 34.  The BBC, by the way, often angered the composer when announcing the work by giving only its subtitle and omitting the "Young Person's Guide" part!  Given Britten's lifelong interest in providing musical experiences for children (almost every one of his operas includes parts for child singers), his irritation is understandable.  This first recording of the piece is conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, who also gave the concert première in 1946, and who conducted and narrated the film version, "Instruments of the Orchestra."  Pictured below is the Steinweiss cover design for the American Columbia issue of this set:

Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
(+ Bach-Sargent: Suite No. 3 in D - Air)
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
Recorded October 26, 1946
Columbia Masterworks Set MM-703, three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 54.81 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 25.53 MB)

Purcell's shadow also hangs heavily over the String Quartet No. 2, which was composed in 1945 to commemmorate the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death.  This is a re-upload of a recording I originally posted in May 2008, and includes Britten's only recording as a violist in the filler, the Purcell Fantasia Upon One Note:

Britten: String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op. 36
(+ Purcell: Fantasia upon One Note, arranged for string quintet)
Zorian String Quartet
Recorded October 12, 1946
HMV C 3536-39, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 82.89 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 34.67 MB)

John Amis, married to Olive Zorian, the leader of the ensemble on this recording, recalled Britten's reticence talking about his own music during rehearsals for this work.  Amis "listened and would occasionally ask about some detail or comment with delight, 'Oh, I see, this new tune is really the old one upside down,' or something like that, at which Ben would look hard at the score and say, 'Oh, is it? Fancy that?' Sometimes he would wink as he said it.  At other times it was difficult to know whether he was fooling or not."  This anecdote comes from Humphrey Carpenter's fine 1992 biography of the composer.


  1. Thanks Bryan - I love the Sargent film! Interested in hearing the Fleet St Choir - I have the VW Mass, may upload it if I can find it!

  2. It might interest you to know that the "fifth" member of the Zorian Quartet on this occasion was Britten himself, playing the "one note" (a pedal C) of the title! Britten played the viola as a youth, but this is apparently his only recording on the instrument...