The English composer Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, East Suffolk, on 22 November 1913 (coincidentally the feast day of Cecilia, the patron saint of music). He died on 4 December 1976 at Aldeburgh. Britten’s experiences with religion and the Bible are representative of a segment of the British population that values spirituality and religious tradition but chooses to worship through music in secular settings, rather than in the ceremonial liturgy. As a child Britten attended St. John’s Church in Lowestoft, which was demolished during the 1970s. Britten’s mother, Edith, was one of the great influences in his life, artistically and morally. She strongly encouraged her son’s participation in organized religion and raised him in the Evangelical Anglican Church. Religion provided Britten with exposure to communal music-making, which his mother valued since she had high hopes for his becoming a successful composer. Mrs. Britten’s beliefs changed over time from the Evangelical Anglican Church (sometimes referred to as the “Low Church”) to the Church of Christ, Scientist. Her son’s faith evolved quite differently.
Music scholarship tends to regard Britten as a Christian composer, given that the vast majority of his choral works interpret Christian texts, narratives, and secular responses to biblical themes. Britten’s beliefs reflect an individual sense of spirituality that was informed by cultural Anglicanism; however, during adulthood he avoided regular participation in organized religion. The hallmarks and tenets of Christianity, as conveyed through the British sacred choral tradition, left a lasting impression upon the young Britten, influencing his creative work as a composer.
Paul Kildea’s 2013 biography of Britten addresses the composer’s faith in relation to the tumultuous years surrounding World War II. Britten was a pacifist and sought to avoid combatant military service. This ideology was one reason behind his spending several years in the United States (1939–1942), a period during which Britten’s relationship with his life-partner Peter Pears (1910–1986) was nurtured. One of Britten’s arguments for pacifism was faith, though he refuted elements of Christianity, saying “I do not believe in the Divinity of Christ … but I think his teaching is sound and his example should be followed” (Britten’s “Appeal to the Appellate Tribunal,” June 1942).
During the course of a tribunal that sought to evaluate Britten’s petition for conscientious objector status, he associated himself with the Quakers (or Religious Society of Friends). Their belief system is rooted in the notion that religious ritual is not necessary to facilitate the connection between humans and God. The Appellate Tribunal granted Britten his desired “unconditional exemption” from conscription. Britten’s religious compositions fall in line with Quaker sensibilities regarding worship and faith, in that his works can engage spirituality in a variety of settings. He did not identify as Quaker in any substantial way following the tribunal.
Britten’s music, which may be described as neo-Romantic and postmodernist, approaches religious themes intellectually. His religiously skewed compositions range in function from liturgical works, such as the Missa Brevis, to concert works like the massive War Requiem that addresses biblical and political ideas via the transcendental qualities of secular performance. While he composed works that directly quote from the Bible and other religious texts, Britten’s most poignant musical considerations of biblical themes are his settings of texts written by laypeople.
Psalms, Carols, and Cats.
While choral music has a clear liturgical role in the Christian faith (particularly the Church of England), this genre has become a part of British folk culture in recent centuries. Britten is frequently considered a composer (or arranger) of British folk music, due to his having set many traditional secular songs in Folksongs Arrangements, including the popular tunes “O Waly, Waly,” “The Salley Gardens,” and “The Ash Grove.” Many of Britten’s works also engage with folk culture in an overtly narrative fashion. He makes use of particular regional and nautical symbolisms in works like the opera Peter Grimes, op. 33 (1945), which recalls Britten’s roots in East Anglia and his profound visceral connection with the Suffolk coast of England.
The vast majority of Britten’s published choral compositions engage sacred themes. He was savvy to create works suitable for performance in both secular and liturgical settings. This speaks to the role that sacred music has in secular British culture. The Nativity story and Advent season inspired several of Britten’s works for chorus. A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28 (1942), was conceived during Britten’s trip back to England from the United States by ship in 1942, a voyage that was faced with the imminent threat of Nazi U-boat attack. In a letter to his friend Elizabeth Mayer, the composer tells of having “… had to alleviate the boredom!” by composing the carol settings. Originally set for treble voices (women or boys) and harp, A Ceremony of Carols comprises 11 songs. Britten sets the Latin text “Hodie Christus natus est” (Today Christ is born) as the processional and recessional. The majority of the movements set anonymous early English texts on Nativity themes, such as “There is no Rose” and “That yongë child.” Britten also includes similar texts by the sixteenth-century authors William Cornish (fifteenth century–1523) and Robert Southwell (ca. 1561–1595). This collection of songs reveals Britten’s fondness for combining poetry with texts of religious origin.
A Ceremony of Carols is more apt to be heard in a concert hall than a sacred setting. In fact, it was first performed by women of the Fleet Street Choir (under T. B. Lawrence) in the Norwich Castle Library. Both the cycle and individual songs are performed frequently in liturgies and carol services during the Advent season, which may be considered a religious appropriation of music composed for secular purposes. It serves as an indication of the blurred line between sacred and secular choral music in Britten’s oeuvre. His works that address religious themes approach their subjects from the perspective of a man who was learned in religion. To Britten religious themes in music serve as an entrée into critical thinking for a secular society.
In A Hymn to the Virgin (1930; rev. 1934), Britten set an anonymous text from the Oxford Book of English Verse for two a capella (unaccompanied, as in a chapel) choruses. This short work is a prayer to Mary, “Lady, Queen of paradise. … ” Composed of short and simple ethereal phrases, it praises the birth of Jesus as having saved a sinful world that was “forlorn.” Following the premiere of A Hymn to the Virgin at St. John’s Lowestoft (presented by the Lowestoft Musical Society), Britten copied a review by the Lowestoft Journal in his diary that called the work “tuneful and pleasing, with a refined delicacy which demands careful treatment.” This was high praise for the then-17-year-old composer. Other compositions based on the Christmas story include Christ’s Nativity (1931) and A Boy Was Born, op. 3 (1932–1933). The majority of the Nativity-based works date from the early part of Britten’s career.
Many of Britten’s choral works were commissioned for commemorative occasions, including the consecration of churches and anniversaries of institutions. A religious narrative related to contemporary secular celebrations of Christmas is the story of St. Nicholas, which was commissioned for the centennial of Lancing College, Sussex (a school that Pears attended). In Saint Nicolas: A Cantata, op. 42 (1948), Britten set a text by the British librettist and dramatist Eric Crozier (b. 1914–d. 1994). The cantata premiered at the first Aldeburgh Festival (1948), which Britten, Pears, and Crozier founded. Britten conveys the story of St. Nicholas, whose charitable spirit gained him recognition as “Santa Claus” in some Eurasian cultures. In the fifth movement (“Nicolas Comes to Myra and Is Chosen Bishop”), Britten sets the traditional psalm melody of the “Old Hundredth” (with the text “All people that on earth do dwell”) that is normally used throughout different Christian liturgies for the doxology. He elaborates a second statement of the tune with a rich a capella harmonization, followed by an octave-unison repetition of the melody.
In 1945 Britten composed incidental music for This Way to the Tomb, a play by Ronald Duncan, also the librettist of Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, op. 37 (1946). The play premiered on 11 October 1945 at the Mercury Theater in Notting Hill Gate, London. Britten’s music contained many liturgical and biblical references in support of the story “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” including a choral setting of Psalm 70 (“O Lord, Do Not Delay”—Ps 70:1–5) in Latin and a Litany. He also included popular boogie-woogie music with a vocal solo in the second part of the dramatic play.
Britten’s Missa Brevis (“Short Mass”), op. 63 (1959), for boys’ voices and organ, is one of the few works that he composed specifically for regular liturgical use. He set the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin (omitting the Creed) for the boys of the Westminster Cathedral Choir in commemoration of their director George Malcolm’s retirement. The Missa Brevis is one of several works that Britten composed for boys’ choirs, one of the most distinctive ensembles of the British choral tradition. Britten’s setting was originally intended for the Roman Catholic liturgy at Westminster Cathedral. Despite this specific association, churches of different Christian denominations in the United Kingdom utilize the Missa Brevis, knowing it is one of the finest twentieth-century English settings of the Ordinary. It may be heard at the Chapel of King’s College Cambridge, provincial British cathedrals, and even at a few churches in the United States where music directors appreciate Britten’s music. Trinity Wall Street in New York included the Missa Brevis during a series of Britten centenary programs in 2013.
In his invaluable guide to Britten’s compositions, The Music of Benjamin Britten, the musicologist Peter Evans (1979) posits that the Missa Brevis and A Ceremony of Carols require highly skilled and trained young singers. He suggests that works like A Hymn to the Virgin and Psalm 150 are more accessible to less skilled singers (1979, p. 284). Psalm 150, op. 67 (1962), for two-part children’s voices and instruments, was composed for the centennial commemoration of the Old Buckenham Hall School in July 1962. Britten attended this preparatory school under its previous name, South Lodge School, Lowestoft. In Psalm 150 Britten set the psalm-text (Ps 150:1–6, English Standard Version) directly from the Bible, embellishing the call to “Praise Him [God]” via various instruments: trumpet, lute, harp, cymbals, strings, and pipe. He makes use of word-painting, sounding the cymbals in conjunction with the appropriate text summons to celebrate. This call to praise via the sound of instruments is similar to King Nebuchadnezzar’s mandate to fall to the ground and worship the golden image he erected, upon hearing the sounds of the “horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music … ” (Dan 3:7).
Britten set the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s fire pit in The Burning Fiery Furnace, op. 77 (1966), the second of three “Church Parables” (staged works with music that were intended to be performed by amateur church performers). The first parable, Curlew River, op. 71 (1964), was performed frequently during Britten’s centenary year, including at Tanglewood by the Mark Morris Dance Group. In The Burning Fiery Furnace, op. 77 (1966), Britten compounds Japanese musical traditions with Western Christian modality. The third parable, The Prodigal Son, op. 81 (1968), addresses the biblical theme of temptation and succumbing to evil that is told in Luke 15:11–32.
Two of Britten’s most popular choral works are Rejoice in the Lamb, op. 30 (1943), and Festival Te Deum, op. 32 (1944). Both compositions call for mixed chorus and organ, though Rejoice in the Lamb utilizes four soloists, representing each of the four principal voice parts. Festival Te Deum has one solo for treble voice. In Rejoice in the Lamb, which was commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton, Britten set a poem by Christopher Smart (1722–1771), “Jubilate Agno.” Smart’s poem was inspired by a verse from the book of Revelation, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). The poem incorporates references to biblical personalities, including Nimrod, Ishmael, Balaam, Daniel, Ithamar, Jakim, and David. Britten incorporates Smart’s reference to his cat Jeoffry, who is proclaimed as “the servant of the Living God” (Smart wrote the poem while incarcerated in an asylum). This inclusion hints at Britten’s cheeky sense of humor. Festival Te Deum was composed for the 1944 centennial of St. Mark’s Church, Swindon. Britten set text from the Book of Common Prayer to boldly proclaim the glory of God.
Britten composed five canticles from 1947 to 1974. They set extended verse interpretations of biblical narratives for voice(s) and instrumental accompaniment. Canticle I, “My Beloved is Mine,” op. 40 (1947), uses a poem by Francis Quarles (1592–1644) that was inspired by the Song of Solomon. Canticle II, “Abraham and Isaac,” op. 51 (1952), uses a text from the Chester Miracle Play to tell the story of God’s test of Abraham (Gen 22:1–24). The third canticle, “Still Falls the Rain,” op. 55 (1954, rev. 1983), sets Edith Sitwell’s (1887–1964) “The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn.” Sitwell’s text examines British sacrifice during the Battle of Britain via the Passion narrative. Britten set texts by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) in the final two canticles: “Journey of the Magi” is the text for Canticle IV, op. 86 (1971), and “The Death of Saint Narcissus” is the basis of Canticle V, op. 89 (1974). The fifth canticle is the only one of the set that does not employ piano, rather Britten composes for tenor and harp (he notably used harp accompaniment instead of piano in A Ceremony of Carols). Because the canticles were composed over the course of three decades, they act as a sampling of the different periods of Britten’s career as a composer, from his populist period in the 1940s to a more stark and elusive late style in the 1970s.
Britten’s War Requiem, op. 66 (1961), is universally accepted as a twentieth-century choral-orchestral masterwork. Composed for three solo singers (soprano, tenor, and bass), chamber orchestra, mixed chorus, symphonic orchestra, boys’ choir, and organ, the War Requiem is massive in scale. It was composed for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (St. Michael’s), which was rebuilt beginning in 1956 after being destroyed by the German Luftwaffe on 14 November 1940. The premiere took place on 30 May 1962, just days after Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II (b. 1926), the figurehead of the Church of England, placed a new foundation stone. Britten’s response to the destruction of World War II synthesizes religious mourning rites (the Missa pro defunctis—“Mass for the Dead” ) with secular poetry by Wilfred Owen, a leading British poet who served as a soldier in World War I. The fact that Britten’s music was commissioned for such a historic moment in Great Britain’s recovery from World War II affirmed his place as the leading English composer of the twentieth century. His music resonates with both religious and secular strands of British culture on a scale that has yet to be matched in the twenty-first century, making Benjamin Britten a national cultural icon.
- Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. London: J. M. Dent & Songs, 1979.
- “Evening, Morning, Night.” Britten-Pears Foundation. www.brittenpears.org/page.php?pageid=500.
- Hamm, Thomas. “Quakers: Through the Nineteenth Century.” In Encyclopedia of Religion in America, edited by Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, pp. 1808–1816. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2010.
- Kildea, Paul. Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. London: Penguin, 2013.
- Mitchell, Donald, and Philip Reed, eds. Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten; Volume One, 1923–39. London: Faber and Faber, 1991a.
- Mitchell, Donald, and Philip Reed, eds. Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten; Volume Two, 1939–45. London: Faber and Faber, 1991b.
- “Our History.” Coventry Cathedral. www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/wpsite/our-history.
- Britten, Benjamin. A Hymn to the Virgin (vocal score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1935.
- Britten, Benjamin. A Ceremony of Carols, arranged for SATB and harp by Julius Harrison (vocal score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1943; rev. 1994.
- Britten, Benjamin. Rejoice in the Lamb (vocal score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1943.
- Britten, Benjamin. This Way to the Tomb: Incidental Music to the Play by Ronald Duncan (full score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1945.
- Britten, Benjamin. Saint Nicolas: A Cantata (choral score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1948.
- Britten, Benjamin. Psalm 150 (vocal score). London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1963.
Nicholas Alexander Brown