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Choristers give voice to Britten's music for the church
work from composer Benjamin Britten. In 1944, St Mark’s Church asked him to set the Te Deum in celebration of its centenary. Just recently on BBC Radio 3, a member of St Mark’s choir at the time recalled that the piece was: “pretty demanding to sing”.
This year the musical world is widely celebrating the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth, and Oxford is making up for lost time. The year-long Britten in Oxford celebration, partnered by The Oxford Times, is already in progress, and now New College Choir has released a double CD set containing all of Britten’s church music. The project is the brainchild of the choir’s director, Edward Higginbottom. When did he first become conscious of Britten and his music?
“Anyone who has been involved in church music since they were a teenager, as I have, will have come across his Jubliate in C,” said Edward. “That was always coming up. As a teenager, I also attended the first performance of the War Requiem in the early 1960s in Coventry Cathedral. That made a huge impression on me.”
As a schoolboy, I took part in one of the first performances of Britten’s children’s opera Noyes Fludde — the line-up on that occasion, incidentally, included a certain Tim Rice on handbells. Britten came to a rehearsal, and I remember him standing modestly behind a pillar in the school chapel, and not making any comment unless asked. That must have been difficult for him, for he was often intolerant of musicians who wished to put their own spin on his work. How, I ask Edward, does he think he would have got on with Britten, had the composer been present at the CD recording sessions? “The thing about composers is that once they’ve written something, the music is outside their control. Eventually they will be dead, and they should be very pleased that people continue to take an interest in their music. With Britten, I look at some of the marked speeds, and I think: ‘It doesn’t have to be that fast and energetic’. I wonder if he put on those marks whilst sitting at the piano composing, rather than working with the voices. But otherwise we sing the notes he wrote, so we get a tick for that, and we generally follow his dynamics.”
In this anniversary year, Britten’s sexuality and interest in adolescent boys is endlessly debated. But the importance of the unbroken male voice in his music is undeniable. “I don’t think our present-day choristers are particularly aware of the degree to which Britten cherished the boy’s voice, and the boy’s place within music making” Edward says. “It’s particularly evident in one of the last pieces he wrote, the Missa Brevis, composed for the boys of Westminster Cathedral. He liked the boys to sound boyish — not urchins exactly, but boys who could kick a football, and use their elbows if they had to. I think that gives us a natural affinity with his music.”
Two CD set, Novum NCR 1386 £14.29 on Amazon.co.uk