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Twentieth century English composer Benjamin Britten demonstrated an unusual capacity to evoke transcendent dimensions of reality. In this essay David A. Hoekema argues that certain works for accompanied solo voices and some non-operatic stage works achieve an intensity of musical and emotional expression that seem to encompass both divine and human realms. Examples of this dimension of Britten’s work can be found not only in selected compositions from several stages of his career but also in a 2012 feature film in which one of Britten’s compositions played a central role: the film was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the work Britten’s church drama Noyes Fludde. Mr. Hoekema is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College.

On the anniversary of his birth in 1913, English composer Benjamin Britten was celebrated around the globe in performances of his compositions for the opera stage, symphony hall, chamber ensemble, and solo performer. A website dedicated to the anniversary lists nearly 500 special events – conferences, festivals, performances – extending over several years’ time. At Britten’s longtime home in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, the festival he arranged each year was expanded into a major international gathering of musicians for the occasion. Not one but two fine new biographies were published: Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music by poet and journalist Neal Powell adds psychological depth and a poet’s gift for description to the insights of other biographers, while the similarly titled Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century by the conductor and writer Paul Kildea, author of two previous studies of the composer, provides a comprehensive account of every aspect of Britten’s life, personal and professional.1 An earlier biographer has written:

We can say without exaggeration that Britten’s oeuvre changed the course of music in the twentieth century. During his lifetime he was hailed as the greatest composer of opera and art song in English since Henry Purcell, and his accomplishments were recognized by the queen in his last years by the award of a life peerage. Some contemporaries faulted him for composing too quickly and too conventionally, but Britten himself seems to have regarded these qualities as virtues rather than vices. He welcomed commissions from disparate sources – individuals, orchestras, churches, and schools – and often worked on two or three projects at once. The resulting body of work is daunting in its dimensions: the compilation in one biography lists 17 operas and other works for the stage, 23 compositions for orchestra, 51 choral works (ranging in scope from brief anthems to the War Requiem), 40 works for accompanied vocal solo; and 44 chamber works, plus several dozen more film scores, radio program scores, transcriptions and arrangements.2

As a composer Britten possessed an unusual capacity to evoke transcendent dimensions of reality, creating melodies and harmonies that draw the listener beyond the bounds of ordinary experience. Britten’s music speaks to us in a language that is at the same time earthly and heavenly, and this is no less true of his secular music than of his sacred settings and his relatively few liturgical compositions. Glimpses into the spiritual realm, both its joys and its terrors, occur in Britten’s half-dozen operas, in his works for orchestra, and in chamber music.

In certain compositions for accompanied solo voices, and in some stage works intended for performance by community members rather than professional musicians, a vivid sense of the transcendent is particularly evident. Some of these are sensitive settings of devotional poetry, while others use secular texts that highlight the life of the spirit as well as the body. In these examples of Britten’s musical legacy an intensity of musical and emotional expression is attained that is both moving and unsettling, and the intensity expands their significance from the musical to the spiritual realm.

By no means does the music achieve, nor does Britten aspire to provide, a discursive description of an otherworldly mode of existence, a heaven that is wholly separate from life on earth. Leading biblical scholars remind us that, for the writers of the New Testament, there was an inextricable connection, not an unbridgeable gulf, between “heaven,” God’s proper home, and “earth.” The promise of the Kingdom was the eager anticipation of their convergence in a new realm, a new heaven that is also a new earth. Fleeing from earth to some distant paradise formed no part of the early Christians’ vision of salvation; rather, they looked for the signs in the world around them that heaven and earth would soon be one, God’s presence filling the world as the waters fill the sea.3

This is the sense in which, I suggest, Britten’s music achieves spiritual significance. It does not close our eyes to earthly life and redirect them toward heaven; rather, it helps us open our eyes to the signs of God’s presence to which we have been blind. All music that moves us draws us outside ourselves, in one way or another. The vocal settings and stage works I will discuss here, I will argue, are unusually effective in heightening our awareness that the divine and the human exist in close and mutual relationship, not in isolation from each other. From the perspective of a philosopher with a special interest in aesthetic experience, a frequent concertgoer, and choral singer, I will offer an account of some distinctive and noteworthy characteristics of Britten’s music.

The means employed in many of these works are more than simply musical: many of Britten’s most effective compositions employ visual as well as auditory elements. To hear these works only in an audio recording is to miss some essential communicative elements. This realization was brought home to me in an entirely unexpected setting: a popular feature film released in 2012 in which one of Britten’s compositions played a central role. The film was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the work Britten’s “church opera,” Noye’s Fludde. Most audiences probably heard nothing more than an unusual soundtrack, and most critics failed to discern the way in which this unusual work provided the structural backbone of the film’s narrative.

I begin my exploration of the audibility and visibility of the spiritual in Brit- ten’s music, therefore, with a discussion of the film. I turn next to a few other works dating from several stages of Britten’s career: the first three “canticles” and a Serenade in which Britten has set selected poetic texts for one or two vocalists and accompaniment; a movement from his monumental War Requiem; and two non-operatic musical dramas, Curlew River and Noye’s Fludde. Several of these works embed their musical content in supporting visual elements as well, which we might call “cinematic” in a metaphorical if not a literal sense. My hope is that readers of Christian Scholar’s Review will be persuaded, after reading some of my reflections, to listen for themselves to these and other works of a great composer of the twentieth century and to corroborate, or to challenge, the distinctive qualities that I find in them.4

Britten, Noah, and Wes Anderson

American director Wes Anderson has established his reputation with a small body of films that are both highly personal in their vision of the world and appealing to broad audiences. He is one of a handful of American directors whose films often play first at European festivals and later gain bookings in a thousand or more U.S. theaters. Among the films preceding Moonrise Kingdom were The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and an animated film based on a Roald Dahl children’s book, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In 2014 Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel once again won festival awards and went on to a measure of popular success.

Both viewers and reviewers were prepared for something unconventional, then, with the 2012 release of Moonrise Kingdom, a highly stylized tale of children and adults on a windswept island. The events of the film take place in 1960s New England, where a Prospero-like narrator tells us what we are seeing and what is yet to come. Established actors such as Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, and Edward Norton create memorable characters, some so stylized in their dress and manner as to seem only halfway human. Even more memorable are the boy and girl, played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, whose secret summer romance is the central narrative of the film.

The events depicted – daily life in a scout camp, secret assignations, search parties, and a hurricane – unfold in ways that are at the same time completely believable and entirely fantastic. We are aware at every moment that what we are seeing is a product of the imagination of the writer (Wes Anderson), the director (also Wes Anderson), and the actors; and yet the characters seem real and their responses genuine. There is a sort of distance, something analogous to a light scrim across a proscenium stage, through which we observe their interactions.

An important contributor to the film’s effectiveness is the pervasive use of music by Britten, which is listed in the closing credits but not specifically identified by any of the characters. Several works for orchestra and chamber ensemble are heard, beginning with “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” heard from a children’s portable phonograph in the very first scene. Other works for string quartet and chamber ensemble are also heard from time to time. The most prominent role is given to Noye’s Fludde, a “church opera” that was first performed by a huge cast, most of them amateurs from the local parish, at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1958.

Noye’s Fludde is heard twice in the film. First we see a full production, using whimsical costumes and scenery closely modeled on those of the premiere (which have been well documented in photographs). A chance meeting between two children in the context of this performance becomes the awkward beginning of a childhood romance. The second performance of the Britten work occurs a year later, in the chronology of the film. We see the sets and costumes being prepared, cast and crew making all the necessary preparations. The performance is canceled when a storm of Noachic magnitude arrives, bringing high winds and torrents of rain. Yet Noye’s Fludde is what we hear, recalling the performance seen at the film’s beginning, while the storm bears down on the village with devastating consequences.

Few reviewers took note of the role of Britten’s music in shaping the tone and the narrative of the film. Roger Ebert’s brief notice called attention to the film’s “magic realism” expressed in its vibrant color palette but made no mention of the score. He added a perceptive comment, however, that may disclose an affinity between filmmaker and composer in a way that will become more evident below when we discuss Britten’s Curlew River:

In Anderson’s films, there is a sort of resignation to the underlying melancholy of the world; he is the only American director I can think of whose work reflects the Japanese concept mono no aware, which describes a wistfulness about the transience of things.5

Jeffrey Anderson’s review in The San Francisco Chronicle observed wryly that this film, which “could be Anderson’s most honest movie yet, also contains arguably his two most mature characters, who both happen to be 12,” but noted only in passing that they meet at “a church play,” with no further details.6 Michael Philips, reviewing the film for the Chicago Tribune, referred to “scenes from a Noah’s Ark pageant” without identifying its source.7 Christian Century reviewer John Petrakis mentioned Britten by name but perceived his music only as a backdrop to the story of two young lovers “who lack Romeo and Juliet’s passion but seem a lot more capable in the wild.”8 I have found just one reviewer who gave credit to the important contribution made by Britten’s music: in a New Yorker blog posting Russell Platt went so far as to refer to “Benjamin Britten’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’” explaining the reference in this way:

The opera is simultaneously the movie’s scaffolding and its secret life, its invisible “color,” a mixture of innocence and sophistication that influences the film’s essential style and the equal weights that adults and children have in it.9

The last reviewer is more perceptive than any of the others, even though the label “opera” is misapplied to Noye’s Fludde. Anderson’s film is marked by quirky and idiosyncratic characters, costumes, and settings, and the repeated employment of Britten’s church drama underscores the ways in which children act like adults, adults like children, in times of crisis. The director has acknowledged that his use of the work reflected his own childhood experience of taking part in a production of the drama.10

The more closely we examine the narrative of the film and that of the church drama, as well as the biblical story that it retells, the greater the role we can discern for Britten’s music. A narrative arc of human folly, destruction by the elements, and redemptive grace stands at the center both of the story that Britten retells with musical means and of the events that occur in the lives of the film’s characters. These events unfold in Moonrise Kingdom in a way that combines realism and imagination, as we have noted above. A similar suspension between the real and the fantastical characterizes Britten’s church drama, in its parade of children wearing animal costumes and in the slapstick comedy of Noah’s arguments with Mrs. Noah. Indeed, similar qualities can be found in the Chester cycle of morality plays from which Britten drew his texts and in the biblical story itself, as recounted in the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis. These parallels are far from coincidental, I believe, but reflect writer and director Wes Anderson’s facility for employing film to communicate simultaneously on several levels.

Moonrise Kingdom is a tale of innocence and the discovery of love, a story in which two children who feel alone in the world discover each other and in doing so discover themselves, with no help but much hindrance from the adults in their lives. The staging of a musical and dramatic tale of catastrophe, deliverance, and grace provides the circumstances in which the children first meet each other. Rather like those who board the ark to escape immanent destruction, they set out to create a new life without the deadening and oppressive demands of scoutmasters or parents. Repression and alienation follow them into the wilderness, in the form of search parties and police officers and fellow scouts, but after their capture, the two persuade captors to become allies instead.

And then chaos and destruction arrive more dramatically than before, as a hurricane bears down on the island. Britten’s church drama makes a return, but where we both saw and heard it being performed earlier, it is now heard only as a musical accompaniment to the storm. Where previously the visual and the musical elements matched, we now see scenes of flooding, collapsing buildings, and relentless gales. Yet once again we hear the musical progression from storm to calm, from destruction to deliverance – a promise of redemption that is, at last, fulfilled (rather implausibly, it must be said) in a dramatic rescue from a church steeple in ruin.

Is this a projection onto Anderson’s film of one viewer’s interpretive frame? I do not believe it is: at most, I am placing more emphasis than the filmmaker would on certain specific parallels. The film unmistakably conveys a message of alienation yielding to intimacy, childhood innocence as a corrective to adult mis-understanding, and resilience in the face of destruction. And Benjamin Britten’s musical dramatization of the story of Noah, first seen and heard and later only heard, underscores that message in a subtle but powerful way. Thus it provides evidence of the power of Britten’s music to shape our sense of what transcends ordinary experience.

The remaining examples will be more exclusively musical, not cinematic, and will be assessed more briefly. But before turning to these examples, it will be useful to insert a brief note about Britten’s personal spiritual convictions, which we will find expressed in the examples still to be discussed.

Britten’s Relationship to Christianity and the Church

Britten’s personal religious convictions have been a subject of dispute among biographers and commentators. One early biographer insisted that “as a devout and practicing Christian,” Britten’s “religious beliefs are central to his life and work.”11 But this assessment flies in the face of much evidence. Britten mistrusted any exclusive claims of religious authority and voiced many misgivings about orthodox Christian doctrines, while acknowledging a longing for the childlike faith he had once possessed but could no longer avow. In his statement to the tribunal from which he requested conscientious objector status in 1943, he stated boldly: “I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, but I think his teaching is sound and his example should be followed.”12 Peter Pears, his partner in music and in life for thirty-seven years, described Britten as an agnostic who nevertheless loved Jesus Christ.13

All the same, Britten composed numerous works for church performance and selected many Christian poems to set to music. When the rector of a Northampton church asked him to “write some music for our jubilee celebration next year,” explaining that he had a great passion for “closer association between the arts and the Church,” Britten replied that he shared the rector’s enthusiasm. The result was the whimsical cantata using the work of the eccentric eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart, “Rejoice in the Lamb.”14 Asked by pianist Murray Perahia whether he was a believer, Britten replied that, although he did not accept church doctrine, he was “certainly Christian in his music.”15 This passing comment may be the most insightful comment to keep in mind as we continue our exploration of his musical legacy.16

During a 1955 visit to Bali, Britten expressed his admiration for the “fantastically rich” music, “as complicated as Schoenberg,” and also the “remarkable culture,” rooted in a sensuous Hinduism that seemed to reflect a deeply religious spirit not founded in notions of guilt and sin.17 The same spirit of wonder at other modes of religious expression was evident in his fascination with a Noh drama that Britten witnessed shortly thereafter in Japan, an example of highly formal classical theater involving actors, chorus, and a small wind and percussion ensemble. A decade later he adapted the Japanese folktale recounted in that performance, which will be discussed below. But the events depicted had been transposed from Japan to a medieval Christian setting near Britten’s East Anglian home.

Britten’s alienation from the church was exacerbated, if not directly caused, by his identity as both a pacifist and a homosexual. Each of these dimensions of his identity elicited mistrust if not open hostility from most of his contemporaries in the United Kingdom. As a pacifist, he felt unwelcome at home by 1939 and undertook a long journey to the United States and Canada. As a homosexual (and that is the right term in this context – Pears noted after his partner’s death that Britten would never have employed the term “gay”) the young Britten knew that he could be prosecuted for any acts of intimacy that he might engage in.18

Britten’s sexual identity was widely known in his lifetime, even if the English press believed it would be indecent to mention it explicitly. But he had no interest in seeking public recognition or directly confronting conventional attitudes. He did not embrace the flagrantly public stance taken by his friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, which seemed to demand not just others’ toleration but their affirmation as well.19 Throughout his adult life Britten was, as one biographer has put it, “an intensely solitary and private spirit, a troubled, sometimes even despairing visionary.”20

Despite his doubts about the church and its doctrines, Britten returned again and again to its music, and he delved deeply into its poetic heritage. He employed plainchant and Renaissance polyphony in his vocal works, and he selected poems in which Christian themes are prominent. Even in his operas, Britten often upheld Christian themes of faith and forgiveness. Indeed, in his second opera, “The Rape of Lucretia,” Britten embedded the classical narrative in a distinctly Christian frame, an alteration that baffled – or angered – many critics. A lifelong friend recalled that Britten had once told him, “I am coming to feel more and more that all my music must be written to the glory of God.”21

My purpose in this essay is to examine Britten’s music, not his biography, for its spiritual dimensions. Did Britten find a musical language capable of pointing beyond the realm of daily experience? Among the wide variety of compositions that flowed so prolifically from his pen, which works can help us to answer that question?

Britten’s operas, beginning with Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes in the 1940s and ending with Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice in the 1970s, may prove to be his most important and influential contribution to the Western canon, and they are regularly performed by companies around the world. They have been interpreted in many ways: as contemporary expressions of the operatic heritage of Purcell and Handel, as dramatic narratives of twentieth-century anxiety, as expressions of anguished but suppressed homosexuality, and so forth. To attempt to assess their spiritual content would be too large a task to undertake here, however. Nor will I attempt to unpack the extramusical meaning of Britten’s instrumental works. Some of the string quartets and other chamber works stand out as arrestingly as the operas for their originality and expressive quality, but for our purposes they are not as directly relevant as works in which Britten joins music to text.

In order to explore the spiritual dimensions of Britten’s music, then, I will focus first on a small selection of works for voice and accompaniment. After noting the continuity of one of these works with Britten’s best-known liturgical composition, the War Requiem, I will discuss two larger-scale works for amateur and professional performers. Spanning several decades of Britten’s musical career, these works are disparate in character, but some common elements lie beneath the surface. In a concluding section of the essay I will identify some common characteristics that help to explain their expressive power. One of the most important, I will argue, is that – as in Wes Anderson’s film – the musical and the visual are frequently linked in ways that allow each to reinforce the other, even in works written for the concert hall and not the stage.

The Spiritual in Britten’s Music, Part I: Selected Vocal Works

Canticle I: “My Beloved is Mine” (1947)

Britten wrote that in employing the term “canticle” for selected solo vocal works he meant to invoke the “Divine Hymns” of Henry Purcell, but unlike Purcell’s these works were intended for non-liturgical use. They set poetry on spiritual matters to music that uses minimal means to achieve expressive eloquence.

The first canticle, employing a sixteenth century poem by Frances Quarles, was composed as a memorial tribute to Britten’s friend Dick Sheppard, former rector of the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and founder of the Peace Pledge Union, a pacifist organization of which Britten had been an active member. In five stanzas, loosely paraphrasing and expanding on the love poetry of the Song of Solomon, the narrator describes a love that is like the merging of two streams – an image that is vividly invoked in the piano accompaniment. The vocal line ranges freely over wide intervals, only loosely supported by the piano, until its wild energy is exhausted, and voice and accompaniment join together in a quiet consonance, achieving a peaceful harmony. Here are stanzas four and five:

Nor time, nor place, nor chance, nor death

Can bow my least desires unto the least remove.

He’s firmly mine by oath, I his by vow.

He’s mine by faith and I am his by love.

He’s mine by water, I am his by wine:

Thus I my best beloved’s am,

Thus he is mine.

He is my altar, I his holy place,

I am his guest and he my living food.

I’m his by penitence, he mine by grace,

I’m his by purchase, he is mine by blood.

He’s my supporting elm and I his vine:

Thus I my best beloved’s am,

Thus he is mine.

Is the poem addressed to God or to a lover? As in the biblical original, ambiguity between the two is intended, even while the imagery of water and wine, and the language of grace and purchase, favor the theological interpretation. Britten’s musical setting invites us to hear the poem on both levels.22

This is a work for solo voice and piano, with no directions for its staging. The visual elements are here suggested in the poetic imagery: we are invited to envision water, wine and blood, and to think of the singer, and by extension of ourselves, as pliant vines supported by a sturdy tree. When in the next canticle Britten adds a second voice, the implied staging of the musical work becomes more complicated.

Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (1952)

The story of the writing of Britten’s second “canticle” is as unusual as its musical content: it was written to be sung at fundraising events for the English Opera Group. Britten was to be the pianist, Pears the tenor soloist, and Kathleen Ferrier the soprano. Ferrier was already suffering from an advanced stage of cancer and passed away not long afterward. Britten and Pears recorded the work a few years later with a boy soprano; in other performances supervised by the composer a countertenor sings the second vocal part.

Adapting his libretto from the text of a miracle play from the medieval festival cycle of the city of Chester, Britten recounts the story of the binding of Isaac in a spare but evocative musical language. Just two soloists effectively represent three distinct characters: the tenor sings the part of Abraham, the soprano that of Isaac, while the two voices join together in a high register, using intervals that sometimes resemble medieval organum, to represent the voice of God. It is God who speaks first:

Abraham, my servant, Abraham,

Take Isaac, thy son by name,

That thou lovest the best of all,

And in sacrifice offer him to me

Upon that hill there besides thee.

The biblical story is then retold in a conversation between father and son. An ordinary outing descends into unspeakable horror; but on realizing that God has commanded his death, Isaac turns to his father and asks a final blessing. Father and son bid each other farewell in a melodic duet of great tenderness. When they sing of the events that are about to unfold, however, each sings on a single note, while frightening chords follow each other on the piano. Before long the two human voices and piano fall silent, and the unearthly harmony of the divine voice returns:

Abraham, my servant dear,

Lay not thy sword in no manner

On Isaac, thy dear darling.

For thou dreadest me, well wot I,

That of thy son has no mercy,

To fulfil my bidding.

As Abraham releases Isaac and prepares the ram for sacrifice, monotonic melody gives way to a lyrical duet, with gentle clouds of harmony sounded on the piano. Father and son sing a closing song of thanksgiving, employing the same canonic figures of their earlier farewell. The anxiety conveyed by angular and dissonant chords resolves into a peaceful consonance.

The musical elements employed here are minimal, the music accessible and even tuneful. Moreover, every audience hearing the work already knows the story and its outcome. Yet its effect, when performed by musicians sensitive to its subtleties, can be remarkably powerful. During a visit to a city in northern England in summer 2013 I learned by chance of an afternoon chamber music recital, featuring local singers and a pianist in an all-Britten program that included Canticles I and II as well as a selection of folk song settings. Canticle II was programmed last, and for good reason: by the time Abraham and Isaac (a countertenor, in this performance) sang their thanksgiving, many in the audience were weeping in response to the intensity of the musical storytelling and the relief experienced with the ending of the work. When I thanked the soloists after the performance, one of them said he had noticed the audience response and found it understandable. “I cannot listen to Canticle II!” he said. “It’s overwhelming and unbearable. I can only sing it.”

Here Britten has deployed a specific musical device, that of doubling a tenor and a treble voice, to represent the divine presence in relationship to human agents. It is immediately evident to even a musically unsophisticated listener when human voices fall silent and God speaks. Moreover, in performance this distinction between human and divine voice is frequently underscored by simple movements of the two soloists, standing apart when they represent father and son, moving into close proximity to sing the part of God together. In some performances the two soloists stand back to back, effectively creating one singer with two voices—a duality in unity representing a God who is both one and more than one. The movement of father and son up the mountain to the place of sacrifice is only described, not enacted, in this brief work; but the reciprocal movement between Creator and Creature, between the one who calls and the ones who are called, is directly portrayed by the alternation of three distinct voices that are created by just two soloists.

Britten’s second canticle conveys a vivid sense of God’s immanence and transcendence, as one to whom both love and awe are due. Few composers have conveyed this sense as vividly as Britten does in this brief work.

Canticle III: “Still Falls the Rain” (1953)

The third canticle adopts a darker tone and a richer texture, and in place of two soloists and one accompanist it employs one tenor soloist and a solo horn, supported by the piano. Edith Sitwell composed her poem of lament for the suffering of humanity in response to the German blitz in 1940, and its seven stanzas range widely over the world’s history. Britten wrote his musical setting for the memorial service of a young friend, a gifted pianist who had taken his own life. 23

The recurring line of the canticle’s title ties the stanzas together, despite the interruptions of instrumental interludes in which horn and piano give voice to a bitter lament. Britten makes use, most noticeably in the horn solo interludes, of melodies that range over all 12 tones of the scale, in a free and unstructured way that does not adhere to the formal requirements of the 12-tone system of composition. The poem opens:

Still falls the Rain –

Dark as the world of man, black as our loss –

Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails

Upon the Cross…

In the sixth of seven stanzas the tenor speaks, rather than sings, lines from John Donne, with a macabre image of blood suffusing the cosmos:

Still falls the Rain –

Then – O Ile leape up to my God, who pulles me doune –

See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:

It flows from the brow we nailed upon the tree

Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart . . .

Once again, as in Canticle I, Britten’s setting resolves in the closing stanza into melodic and harmonic alignment. The music and the text convey a sense of resignation and rest, if not resolution. There is just one voice in this instance, a voice that speaks both of God and to God. In mourning war’s devastation, the third canticle also invokes divine judgment on our capacity for cruelty to one another.

No physical movement by the performers is required, or suggested, in this work. But the imagery of Sitwell’s poem is dramatically visual, even cinematic. The poem is enveloped in blackness, while rain falls incessantly from the blackness above into the blackness below. The upward leap of the sixth stanza brings a moment of hope, yet it is immediately repulsed and returned to the place where it began. Taken as a whole, the work conveys a sense of existential despair at the darkness that enveloped a nation that had endured years of war, want, and disillusionment.

Dame Edith was present at the first performance of this work by Pears, Britten, and hornist Barry Tuckwell. She wrote to Britten afterward: “I am so haunted and so alone with that wonderful music and its wonderful performance that … I had no sleep on the night of the performance. … I can never begin to thank you for the glory you have given to my poem.”24 Hers is a profoundly Christian lament for the suffering endured by so many, and Britten’s musical setting makes the suffering even more concrete and vivid than does the poem alone. Yet the lament is placed at last in a context of possible hope, with another striking image of darkness and light. In the poem’s final line an unnamed narrator avers: “Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood for thee.” This work dating from the middle 1950s expresses a faith that – like Donne’s – encompasses anger, longing, and love in equal measure.

Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943)

Moving a few years backward in time, we turn to a work dating from Britten’s thirties, early in his career. It was composed with another hornist in mind, the renowned Dennis Brain, who had recently become a good friend. Britten selected several texts from an anthology of English poetry, and his friends suggested others. In a letter Britten dismissed the piece as “not important stuff, but quite pleasant,” but his judgment was far too harsh: the piece deserves a place among the masterpieces of twentieth century chamber music for its integration of textual and musical rhythms and melodies and its remarkable dialogue between voice, horn, and string orchestra.25 Brain and Pears performed the piece frequently, and recorded it more than once, before Brain’s tragic death in an automobile accident, still in his twenties.

While the tone of the piece as a whole is Romantic, forming a loose song cycle, the varied poems draw an astonishing range of musical color from Britten. A peak of intensity is reached when William Blake’s brief elegy, “O Rose, thou art sick!” is taken as the subject of a long meditation on death and decay. The meaning of the brief poem – just thirty-nine words – is conveyed primarily by the horn and piano. The vocalist joins only after a long and expressive opening, and it is the solo horn rather than the singer who ends the movement. For Blake the world was suffused with supernatural meanings, benign and malign. Britten’s music communicates the same mystical awareness, a sense that sickness in a loved one is only a token of deeper sickness in the realm of the spirit. While the tone of the piece as a whole is Romantic, forming a loose song cycle,

O Rose, thou are sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm

Hath sought out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

The sober intensity of this movement is intensified by the one that follows, whose text is the fifteenth century “Lyke-Wake Dirge,” a stern warning to one whose soul will be judged “this ae nighte” for its deeds of mercy and of cruelty – “and Christe receive thy saule.” The tenor begins by precisely imitating the horn’s last notes from the Blake movement, then repeats each verse of the dirge to an unaltered and initially unaccompanied melody. Horn and strings join in a seemingly unrelated dialogue beneath the repeated strains of the soloist, suggesting the deafness of one so wrapped up in daily activities that he is oblivious to the impending time of judgment.26

This may be too deep a meaning to impute to a piece that the composer himself dismissed as lightweight and unimportant. Even if it is too much to read into this work a reference to supernatural evil and divine judgment, it is surely no overstatement to say that the words of the poems Britten selected for this early work have meanings extending far beyond their nominal subject of the falling of the dusk. Allusions and suggestion of deeper realities suffuse this remarkable example of Britten’s music for small ensemble. Its visual elements – images of light and darkness, of a flower that blossoms and then decays, of the procession of mourners from church to gravesite – are implied rather than enacted. The work’s effect might be significantly enhanced, one may imagine (and perhaps this has been done), if it were performed by natural light, either indoors or outdoors, at the very hours of dusk and twilight that it so vividly evokes.

The Spiritual in Britten’s Music, Part II: War Requiem and Staged Musical Dramas

War Requiem (1961): “Offertorium”

Much has been written about Britten’s monumental work for multiple choirs, soloists, and orchestra, commissioned for the dedication of a rebuilt Coventry Cathedral beside the bombed-out ruins of the old. Britten invited three soloists from three nations formerly at war to participate in the premiere performance, and he juxtaposed sacred and secular texts in ways that expressed his lifelong devotion to pacifism.27 Despite its grand scale, Britten referred to the War Requiem infrequently in his correspondence, perhaps because he knew how strong the prejudice against conscientious objectors remained, decades after the end of the Second World War. It may be, writes one commentator, that Britten “thought of it as a rather private, personal work in spite of its very obvious public statement of a pacifist position.”28 Yet the warm reception it received both from critics and from the public when it was first performed on May 30, 1961, shared with the nation in a live broadcast on BBC Radio Three, solidified Britten’s standing as the leading British composer of his era.

I call attention here only to one particularly dramatic moment in the work in which borrowed elements from Canticle II form a central part of the third movement, the “Offertorium.” From the distant organ loft, a boys’ chorus sings a Latin hymn calling on God to deliver the souls of the faithful from the pains of hell. An on-stage chorus enters next, invoking the aid of Saint Michael to fulfill the promise made long ago to Abraham and his seed. These lines are sung to a fugue whose melody is borrowed from the dialogue between father and son in the canticle. The tenor and baritone soloists then take up the theme of Abraham’s faithfulness, employing, as elsewhere in the Requiem, the bitter antiwar poetry of Wilfred Owen, a young British poet killed in the First World War:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took a fire with him, and a knife.

The text is Owen’s, but the musical setting is borrowed directly from the Canticle. When an angel appears to Abraham, we hear an ethereal divine voice like the one that spoke to Abraham. But Owen’s poem ends very differently from that of Genesis, or the Chester Miracle Play.

…lo! an angel called him out of heav’n,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, and slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Isaac, in this setting, has no voice. The shocking closing line of Owen’s poem is repeated three times over by soloists, while the boys’ chorus gently but insistently returns and prays, in Latin: “We offer to you, Lord, sacrifices of prayer and praise.” An entire generation of young men has been sacrificed, it is implied, not to the God to whom they pray in vain but rather to the greed and rapaciousness of their elders. This is “one of the few points,” notes one writer, “where the two worlds of liturgy and front-line reportage share musical material.”29

It is an exceptionally powerful moment in a work rich in such moments. A biographer has written: “Owen’s poems provide a telling and sometimes bitter commentary on the Requiem texts: there is no trace of piety here.”30 God has spoken, as in the Canticle, in a unique and immediately recognizable musical voice. But this time the divine voice is ignored. The bitter condemnation of human folly is conveyed primarily by Owen’s poetry, not the musical setting; but in its evocation of the canticle written a decade earlier Britten has underscored and intensified its meaning. We may hear the voice of God, Britten implies, if we will only listen. But then, far from submitting ourselves in faithful service like Abraham, we are prone to ignore it and press on with our own acts of folly and cruelty. Listening to both texts in dialogue deepens the meaning of each.

To grasp the power of this moment in the Requiem we need to recall and visualize the setting for which it was composed: a spare and open modernist cathedral built alongside the roofless ruins of its medieval counterpart, with three conductors needed to direct nearly 200 musicians, including the boys’ chorus in the organ loft. From most seats in the nave the boys were invisible, their voices seeming to waft from nowhere into the resonant space. Musicologist Philip Rupprecht has described in detail all of the musical elements that strive with each other in this powerful work, and he adds that the drama of the “Offertorium” is heightened by the space in which it was intended to be performed: “the church acoustic functions here (as it will again at the climax of Curlew River) as the realm of the numinous, within which unseen voices sound as ethereal, spirit-like emanations.”31 Towering over all the performers and the audience was a huge tapestry, newly commissioned from Graham Sutherland, depicting Christ triumphant in the posture of an Orthodox icon, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. The subject matter is traditional but the medium is not, deploying bright modern colors and simplified forms.

Against this rich visual background Britten’s angry protest against war, and against the complicity of both church and society in its devastation, gained even greater dramatic power. “Britten thought both Church and State had blood on their hands when it came to war,” writes one biographer.32 His War Requiem conveys both anger and sorrow in its remembrance.

Curlew River (1962)

Our next example is a work composed just a year later than the War Requiem in an entirely different idiom. As has been mentioned earlier, Britten was deeply impressed by a Noh play that he had seen on an extended trip to Asia in 1955. It was based on the traditional tale of Sumidagawa, recounting the journey of a madwoman seeking her lost son. On crossing a river, she is informed by the ferryman that her son had crossed the same river a year earlier but had died soon thereafter. The ferryman leads the madwoman to her son’s grave, and the sight of the burial place provides relief at last from her suffering and releases her from her madness.

Britten wrote that “the whole occasion made a tremendous impression on me: the simple, touching story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvelous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speaking, singing.”33 He wondered how the same effect might be achieved by other means. Nearly a decade later Britten retold the Japanese tale but placed it in the early Christian era in East Anglia. As in the original, a madwoman encounters a traveler and a ferryman and learns of the death of her son. But in Curlew River, Britten’s setting of a text he commissioned from William Plomer, the child’s grave has been the source of comfort and healing to the monks of a nearby abbey and to passersby. Indeed, the entire tale has been rewritten as a morality play presented by a company of monks.

The brothers introduce the tale by quietly intoning an early medieval hymn, sung at Compline in monastic communities, “Te lucis ante terminem” (“To thee before the close of day”). They re-enact the actions of crossing the river with the travelers and leading them to the grave. As they approach, singing in plainchant, the dead boy’s voice becomes audible, subtly joining with the voices of the visitors. Rupprecht has described this remarkable moment vividly:

“I thought I heard the voice of my child”: what is real for the Madwoman is no less real for the listening audience. Our relation to the action is altered in a single stroke. Suddenly, we listen with her….We too catch at the delicate sound of the boy’s voice, piping out in repeats of the chant phrases that mingle with the echoes swirling round the church. The climactic revelation depends on a uniquely close linkage of the action with the physical attributes of the performance space. The boy’s voice is an acoustic revelation, an epiphany in sound. 34

The boy appears above the grave in spectral form and tells his mother that she should go her way in peace, for they will meet again in heaven. Released from her madness, the mother bows her head in gratitude for the healing that her son’s spirit has provided, and the specter returns to his grave.35

This “parable for church performance” – Britten created a new genre, not wishing to label the work an opera – ends as it began with a quiet evening chant in Latin. In counterpoint to the plainchant, a small orchestra of strings, winds and percussion instruments ventures far from Western conventions of melody and harmony, creating delicate effects that evoke both the muted colors of the fen country and the spare melodic and rhythmic motifs of Japanese drama. The solo flute is the madwoman’s interlocutor as she laments her loss, on the way to the tomb, and the same solo instrument returns, now with a more melodious birdlike song, when she bows her head in prayer. Where two intertwined voices were heard as the voice of God in the canticle and the War Requiem, the delicate voice of the flute here seems to represent a benevolent and compassionate world that is at once a material and a spiritual realm.

The staging of the work was of no less importance to Britten than the disposition of voices and instruments, and he insisted that it be performed in the resonant environment of a church. In preparing for its first performance he drew up, with the director, an elaborate guide to how the performers should move on stage and relate to each other. The spectator’s emotions, they wrote, “are imperceptibly but passionately involved in a drama doubly distilled by the very economy of its theatrical means,” an involvement that “can be shattered by a single uncontrolled, weak, or unnecessary gesture.”36 They decided, too, to forego a conductor and instead devised a special gesture – the “curlew,” employed in later works as well – by which one singer could signal another that one phrase was ending and another should begin. In performance (which I have been able to observe only in video recordings, not live) the musicians’ movements on stage and the surrounding darkness of the church interior powerfully reinforce the contrast between the mother’s anxiety and the peaceful rest of her son’s soul.

As noted earlier, Britten valued his experiences in Bali and Japan for their spiritual as much as their cultural and musical revelations, suggesting that there are many ways of relating to God and coping with life and death. After many years pondering the meaning of the Sumidagawa folktale, he decided to recast it as a Christian parable but to set it in an epoch far distant from his own. To tell the tale, Britten composed music that evokes a sense of wonder at the thin curtain that separates the world of the living from that of the dead. Explicitly Christian in its narrative, with evocative music that is neither entirely Western nor entirely Japanese, the parable highlights both the particularity and the universality of that which transcends ordinary experience.

Noye’s Fludde, a Parable for Church Performance (1958)

Moving a few years backward chronologically once again, we come to the example I discuss both first and last, since it played a central role in the film Moonrise Kingdom. Noye’s Fludde belongs to another of Britten’s invented categories, the “church opera.” Commissioned in 1957 by an educational television channel that later withdrew its support, it received its premiere at the Aldeburgh festival the following year in a performance employing a wildly disparate group of musicians: three professional vocal soloists representing Noah, Mrs. Noah, and God; nine instrumentalists from the English Opera Group orchestra; several trained and experienced child soloists; percussionists, organists, handbell players, players on an invented instrument composed of teacups suspended from a clothesline; and several dozen children from Suffolk schools playing recorders and bugles or acting the role of animals. The many photographs included with liner notes for the recording made at Aldeburgh in 1960 (to which the Decca recording company assigned the distinctive catalog number ZNF1) convey a vivid sense of the visual as well as auditory cacophony that resulted, with children marching in and out of Orford Church in costumes representing every variety of bird, mammal, lizard, and fish.

For the text Britten turned to the Chester miracle play cycles, as he had done for Canticle II. His musical setting captures both the solemnity and the silliness of the original. God speaks to the world he created of judgment and grace – in a solo male voice, this time – and Noah responds to his call. Mrs. Noah ignores his warnings and continues drinking and carousing with “the Gossips” until the rains begin and she is wrestled, over her vociferous objections, onto the ark.

An important organizing element in both the musical and the dramatic structure of the work is the invocation of three familiar hymns, each of them sung by the assembled congregation together with the performers. “Lord Jesus, think on me,” a meditation on Christ’s passion and our redemption, accompanies Noah’s entrance onto a bare stage. The congregation watches the ark being built, hears the words of God to Noah and Noah’s instructions to his family, and endures a great storm, suggested by a relentless bass ostinato and waves of dissonant strings and startling percussion sounds. When calm returns, first the Noah family and then the congregation sing the seafarers’ hymn, “Eternal Father, strong to save.”37 Bugle calls attend the procession of animals into the ark before the storm and out again into the world when the waters subside. Britten specifies that the bugles should be played by young children, creating a glorious blur of bright sounds. In response to God’s promise of faithfulness the choir and congregation join in a third hymn, Joseph Addison’s “The spacious firmament on high.” And just as the rainbow appears – in the original production, a massive and clumsy pasteboard construction – handbells ring out for the first time. Like the bugles they are played by children, but unlike the bugles their notes sound true and clear, a sudden irruption of something pure and holy.

Philip Rupprecht, a musicologist whose comments on the War Requiem were cited earlier, offers a close analysis of the formal features that propel this work from the genre of children’s pageant to something close to mystical elevation:

The dramatic force of God’s promise in Noye comes about in its unusual musical union with the congregation’s response. Promise and hymn of rejoicing achieve a miraculous fusion as the first verse steals in [musical examples omitted]. The thrill of this moment, surely, springs from the tingling interplay of separate tonal claims, with the F♮’s of the bell clusters rubbing up against F♯’s in the hymn tune. These distinctive tonal viewpoints span the overall scene. The higher brightnesses of the bell overtones correspond to the rainbow itself, appearing on stage as God speaks; Addison’s hymn, meanwhile, forms the sounding earthbound contemplation of the ”spacious firmament” in which the rainbow shines.38

The author of a Britten biography describes Noye’s Fludde as “easily his most lovable work,” one that

makes an assault on the listener’s emotions by inspired inventive imagery of the simplest kind, by the integration into the score of three of the finest and most evocative hymns of the Anglican tradition, and by the disarmingly touching blend of the amateur and the professional. Strong men have been known to weep uncontrollably at the sound of the bugles which precede the animals’ march and at the appearance of the rainbow.39

We have come full circle in our exploration of selected works by Britten: beginning with a contemporary film in which Britten’s church drama serves as a framework for the narrative of discovery, loss, and restoration, we have briefly reviewed some works for voice and accompaniment and a few of Britten’s staged works, ending with the same church drama. There is nothing of the austerity of the Canticles in Noye’s Fludde, and the visual spectacle that a performance offers is far more lively and disorderly than the solemn procession of monks in Curlew River. And yet, as the cheerful hubbub of children singing, marching, and playing bugles gives way to the clearer tones of handbells and then the singing of a familiar hymn, listeners are carried forward from danger to safety, from chaos to restored order, from the burden of God’s wrath to the sweetness of his grace. The children make this movement with their feet, and those who listen, becoming performers as well with the first notes of the hymn, follow with their hearts. The effect, if one is able to enter fully into the experience, is magical.

What is Special Here? How Does Britten’s Music Carry its Meanings?

A word of advice to readers of Christian Scholar’s Review who have reached this point in my essay: stop reading and take some time to listen. Most of Britten’s works, including all of those discussed above, are widely available on CDs and from download sites; his song cycles and operas are frequently performed. Listen to the performances that Britten himself conducted, and to the vocal recordings he made or supervised with his partner Peter Pears and with many other outstanding vocalists of his generation. Seek out, too, the more recent interpretations that sometimes depart dramatically from Britten’s own aesthetic choices but in doing so succeed in uncovering new beauties in his music.

And when, having done so, you return to this essay, you may already be able to answer the question I have just posed. You will have experienced the distinctive character that sets Britten’s music apart from that of his predecessors and his contemporaries, the originality of his voice, and the depth of meaning that many of his works are able to convey through their musical and, in many cases, visual expression.

It is difficult in any circumstances to describe in words the effect that music has on an attentive listener, an effect that is as much emotional and affective as cognitive. But in this closing section I will point to a few distinctive features of Britten’s music that enhance its capacity to convey multiple layers of meaning. The examples that I have discussed, it should be noted, are not works of sacred music in the usual sense. None employs a liturgical text, except as one element in a complex web of disparate elements. Nor are any of them intended for use in a worship service. Yet each in its own way demonstrates the power of music to reach beyond the temporal to a higher realm whose features it helps us to glimpse. When a composer engages religious issues in a way that avoids any hint of doctrine or didacticism, and when the poetry he selects frequently emphasizes the mystery and unpredictability of the divine, we are encouraged as listeners to anticipate moments of unexpected and unexplainable insight. Thus Britten’s music conveys a sense of openness to the transcendent that is present in the immanent realm.

Before turning to the features that convey this openness, let us take note of some general characteristics of Britten’s oeuvre. The musical means that Britten deploys in his compositions are both highly original and broadly accessible. When Britten deploys some of the tools of serialism, that rigorously intellectual movement in twentieth century composition, he does so without sacrificing melodic appeal. When dissonance explodes in the piano accompaniment to a vocal work, the singer usually provides an audible point of reference for a listener, a repeating note or phrase that maintains a sense of musical centering; and the reverse is often true as well, when the accompaniment is a steady background to unconventional vocal melodies. Instruments are used, in the works cited, in ways that both challenge the performer and accentuate the instruments’ intrinsic character. The horn in Canticle III and the Serenade is called on for gestures resembling hunting calls, the sound of the flute in Curlew River is sweet and melodious, and the piano displays all of its wide expressive range. All these features mark Britten as a master of his compositional craft, while at the same time making his work a source of enjoyment even for listeners who may be unfamiliar with, or alienated by, contemporary musical idioms.

We might note the contrast between Britten and some of his contemporaries in this respect. Olivier Messiaen, Britten’s French contemporary, brought to his compositions for organ, piano, orchestra, and other ensembles a profoundly mystical Christian vision and a deep conviction that music can build a bridge from earth to heaven. But his musical language is so arcane and idiosyncratic that it is accessible only to a limited audience willing to set aside all expectations for conventional tonality and structure. Some of Britten’s British contemporaries and successors, on the other hand – composers such as Percy Grainger and more recently John Rutter – express themselves in a more traditional musical language, gaining universal accessibility but sacrificing a measure of originality.

Risking oversimplification, perhaps we can say that some composers of the twentieth and twenty first century challenge without pleasing, while others please without challenging. Britten, like his older contemporaries Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, manages in many of his works to do both. What one writer has said of Noye’s Fludde can be applied to many of Britten’s works: “It is simple, yet complex, yet comprehensibly complex, and as it was intended for an entire community, so it can appeal to a whole community of musical tastes.”40

We may note also, before turning to our central question, that many of the works discussed here were composed with a particular voice in mind: that of Britten’s longtime companion Peter Pears. Wrote one critic in a remembrance of Pears:

It wasn’t the most beautiful of voices: it was nasal, slightly prissy, desperately English, and of its time. … But it’s also a voice that demands you listen beyond the flaws and odd misjudgments, to its fundamental musicality, intelligence, integrity. 41

Pears’s distinctive timbre is readily identifiable in the many recordings he made of Britten’s music, and the texture of accompanying instruments in Britten’s vocal works often seems ideally suited to complement it.

Britten and Pears became acquainted in the middle 1930s, and from that time until Britten’s death in 1976 they were devoted to each other. Three years Britten’s senior, Pears outlived his partner by a decade. Other favored singers – among them Dietrich Fisher-Diskau, Kathleen Ferrier, Sophie Wyss and John Shirley-Quirk – also elicited from Britten song settings uniquely suited to their vocal range and color. But a large proportion of his vocal works – and an even larger proportion of his best works – were intended to be sung by one distinctive tenor voice. The intimacy of the relationship between composer and performer, musical as well as personal, enhances their expressive power.

The features noted above distinguish Britten’s music from that of many contemporaries, but they do not yet offer insights into its spiritual dimensions. What is that sets his music apart for its capacity to evoke the transcendent? Let me point to three features of the music that has been discussed, each of which contributes to the sense that there is a meaning beyond the immediate to be discerned if only our ears are sufficiently attuned. None is unique to Britten, and yet each is a feature that sets his compositions apart from those of most of his contemporaries and ours.

First, and most obviously, there is an important element that is not strictly musical: Britten selected exceptionally rich texts for his vocal works, ranging over the history of literature in English, and occasionally in French and Italian as well. Sometimes it was an unexpected encounter with the work of a poet that set Britten off in search of the right musical language to convey its meaning. His discovery of George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough” not only inspired the opera “Peter Grimes” but contributed to Britten’s decision to return to England. For the rest of his life Britten made his home on the Suffolk coast, where he had spent his youth.42 This was Crabbe’s own home, as well as the fictional home of his troubled protagonist.

Several examples have been cited above to demonstrate Britten’s fondness for poetry that is rich in biblical imagery, gives voice to a deep if not conventional religious conviction, and points beyond ordinary experience to another realm. What must be added is that, more assiduously and more successfully than any English composer since Purcell, Britten captured the distinctive rhythms and cadences of the English language in his vocal writing. Lines of poetry that are difficult to read in isolation often gain clarity in Britten’s settings. Relationships of both sound and sense are underscored by melodic and harmonic relationships. Selecting outstanding poetry and setting it with care and sensitivity are among the ways in which Britten’s music carries meanings that extend into a spiritual realm.

Second, as has been noted above, Britten makes highly effective use of hymnody in some of his works for large and mixed ensemble. There are not many such works, and hymn tunes do not occur, to my knowledge, in his instrumental compositions.43 But on those occasions when the performers take up the strains of a familiar hymn, and the audience or congregation is invited to join in, the sense that we are part of a reality richer than appears to the immediate senses is immediately enhanced.

This does not occur simply because words of a hymn text are being sung, though that is one element. More important is the subtle but powerful way in which the introduction of a familiar hymn – usually supported by an unconventional accompaniment – brings performers and audience together in a single community. It is first a community of musical expression, as all voices join; and then, given the very nature of a hymn, it becomes a community of faith as well. Britten himself put this point eloquently in a comment quoted above: however ambivalent his personal religious stance, his music is in these instances unmistakably and powerfully Christian.

Looking beyond the limited number of works that directly invoke hymns, we find something similar in many other works, something that is difficult to describe accurately but is capable of having a similar effect. Britten’s musical works contain passages of carefree abandon, of somber lament, of dancelike vitality, of firm resolve – all these and more. But when a work or a movement moves from suspension toward resolution, when its narrative shape is becoming clearer, we frequently find a recurring musical element that carries the listener forward, steadily and irresistibly.

Sometimes this is a bass ostinato, like the one that accompanies the animals boarding the ark. In other instances it is a repeated vocal line, like the often-repeated refrains of Canticle III (“Still falls the rain”) or the Serenade’s “Lyke-Wake Dirge” (“Every night and all / and Christ receive thy saule”). In Curlew River a repeated percussion motif accompanies the procession to the grave. Other musical elements may rise and swirl, disperse and gather, above this repetitive element, seemingly unconstrained by conventional rules of structure or harmony, and yet it maintains its steady pace.

In the contrast between a repetitive melody or rhythm and the freedom of other voices around it, I suggest, the ear and the mind of the listener are given the freedom to attend to levels of extramusical reality. Participating directly in a performance by singing a hymn, and being supported metaphorically by a sustaining musical element, are different ways of forming listeners into a community with liturgical as well as aesthetic dimensions.

Finally, Britten had an unusual ability to support and enhance the effect of his music by providing visual corroboration. Sometimes, as in the song cycles discussed above, this was a matter of poetic imagery. In other instances, including the three staged works that have been discussed, the music is enfolded in a performance that has theatrical elements as well. Just as Wes Anderson found it appropriate to deepen the meaning conveyed in Moonrise Kingdom by repeatedly using Noye’s Fludde to frame the film’s narrative, Britten himself frequently incorporated, or invited, movement by the performers that would underscore the significance of the music being performed. This is dramatically evident in Curlew River, in which the singers play the role of a community of early Christian monks, their cowls and robes prominent on the spare and undecorated stage. The procession of animals in Noye’s Fludde is another vivid example. But even in the less overtly theatrical context of the Canticles or the War Requiem, a listener is still presented with visual as well as melodic and harmonic elements.

Concluding Comment

The category of “sacred music” is commonly understood to include only compositions whose texts convey explicit theological content: hymns, church anthems, liturgical settings, praise songs, and the like. Some of the works of Benjamin Britten that we have discussed fall under this description, while others do not. But if we understand the sacred more inclusively, all of them should be included in that category. Just as the hope of heaven for the biblical writers was a hope for the union of God’s realm with that of humanity, as we have noted, so the sacred character of a musical work can be seen as a synthesis of tone and harmony, physical movement, and awareness of the spiritual in the midst of the ordinary.

Britten’s relationship with the religious life of England in his time was complex and ambiguous. He welcomed commissions from the church, and many of his most joyful and celebrative choral works were created for cathedral dedications and congregational anniversaries. Yet he kept his distance; unwilling to affirm some central Christian doctrines, he also felt himself isolated and mistrusted because of his pacifist convictions and his homosexual identity. Britten kept his distance from the church.

His vocation as a composer as he understood it, we can infer, was not a call to serve the church but to enrich the musical life of his society – a society in which the place of religion was undergoing profound changes. The continuing prominence of the Anglican church in some aspects of British political and cultural life contrasted with a widespread sense that the challenges of modern life, and the devastating effects of two world wars, made traditional religious faith untenable.

Those for whom Britten composed his music were dwelling in an increasingly and pervasively secular world, dramatically different from the one in which their parents and grandparents had lived. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described this shift in telling detail, and traced its roots through several centuries, in his magisterial study, A Secular Age. The decline of religious affiliation, he argues, has redirected but not eliminated the deep human desire to place our own lives in a context that gives them meaning and significance:

For any liveable understanding of human life, there must be some way in which this life looks good, whole, proper, really being lived as it should. The utter absence of some such would leave us in abject, unbearable despair. So it’s not that unbelief shuns Christian ideas of fullness for nothing at all; it has its own versions.44

Previous ages sought to satisfy this need through religious faith and practice, but in the modern age philosophers, poets, and artists are more likely to be invoked as guides.

Britten, I suggest, was one of those guides: he was a composer of sacred music for a secular age. We have already taken note of the unusual synthesis of originality and accessibility that set Britten apart from many of his contemporaries. What Britten understood, and demonstrated repeatedly in his compositions, was that musical tones and intervals, particularly those that enjoy a close and happy marriage to poetic texts, sometimes enable us to see past quotidian realities to a deeper realm of meaning. And in the compositions discussed here, many of them incorporating Christian language and imagery, Britten’s musical language communicates even to a thoroughly secular listener a message of suffering and redemption, an experience of shared sorrow and shared joy, which we struggle vainly to describe using words. The experience is further enhanced by Britten’s incorporation of physical movement in some works and of powerful visual imagery in others.

Sacred music for a secular age: this is Britten’s contribution to our musical heritage, and as we remember his birth just over a century ago we have reasons for gratitude and celebration.

Cite this article
David Hoekema, “Spiritual Realities Made Audible and Visible: An Appreciation of the Music of Benjamin Britten”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 237-263


  1. Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century (New York, NY: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2013). Neil Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music (New York: Henry Holt, 2013).
  2. Michael Oliver, Benjamin Britten (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), 214-215.
  3. Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel As News (New York: T & T Clark, 2010). N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Hidden Story of the Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).
  4. For their comments on this essay at several stages I am grateful to the members of the Philosophy Department at Calvin College, to whom I presented it at a departmental colloquium, and to John Witvliet and Emily Brink at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, who read and commented on an early draft. The comments of two anonymous referees for Christian Scholar’s Review at two stages of the review process were also valuable.
  5. Roger Ebert, review of “Moonrise Kingdom,” May 30, 2012,
  6. Jeffrey Anderson, “’Moonrise Kingdom’ is Magical,” San Francisco Examiner, June 1, 2012.
  7. Michael Philips, “’Moonrise Kingdom’: Wes Anderson Meticulously Crafts a World of Yearning,” Chicago Tribune, May 30, 2012.
  8. John Petrakis, “Film review: “‘I Wish’ and ‘Moonrise Kingdom’,” Christian Century, June 12, 2012,
  9. Russell Platt, “Benjamin Britten’s “Moonrise Kingdom,”” New Yorker (blog posting), August 7, 2012,
  10. “At the post-screening press conference for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom … he revealed that ‘the Britten music had a huge effect on the whole movie, I think. The movie’s sort of set to it. The play of Noye’s Fludde that is performed in it – my older brother and I were actually in a production of that when I was ten or eleven, and that music is something I’ve always remembered, and made a very strong impression on me. It is the colour of the movie in a way.’” Britten-Pears Foundation, “What’s the Music in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom?” n.d., accessed October 18, 2013,
  11. Eric Walter White, Benjamin Britten: His Life and Operas (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 91; cited in Graham Elliott, Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.
  12. Mervyn Cooke, Britten: War Requiem (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 16.
  13. Elliott, 3-5.
  14. Powell, 225-226.
  15. Elliott, 3.
  16. Britten did not regard himself, nor did others see him, as having made his principal contribution through composing sacred music. His contemporaries Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells composed, edited, or arranged innumerable hymns and set many sacred texts for church choir performance. Britten composed no hymns for congregational singing and wrote only a handful of settings of liturgical texts.
  17. David Mathews, Britten (London: Haus Publishing, 2003), 120.
  18. A recommendation from the Home Office for repeal of laws against private homosexual acts between consenting male adults was rebuffed by the government in 1957, and the laws remained on the books, even if they were infrequently enforced, for another decade. See Oliver, 105.
  19. Musicologist Philip Brett, who regards the subtle expression of sexuality as a key to understanding much of the composer’s music, has described Britten and his contemporary Noël Coward in this way: “Both were leisure-class individuals whose discreet homosexuality helped to maintain the power of that troublesome mechanism the ‘open secret,’ which in D. A. Miller’s formulation functions ‘not to conceal knowledge, but to conceal knowledge of the knowledge’; it reinforces the dominant culture by confining homosexuality to the private sphere while making it obscurely present in public discourse as an unthinkable alternative.” Philip Brett, Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 108.
  20. Donald Mitchell, quoted in Michael Kennedy, Britten (Master Musicians Series), 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 117.
  21. Elliott, 23; italics in original.
  22. Benjamin Britten, Barry Tuckwell, and Peter Pears, Three Canticles, comp. Benjamin Britten (sound recording, Argo ZRG 5277, 1961).
  23. Oliver, 157.
  24. Cited in Donald Mitchell, Benjamin Britten: A Pictorial Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), caption to plate 303.
  25. Kennedy, 37.
  26. London Symphony Orchestra, Peter Pears, and Barry Tuckwell, Three Canticles, cond. and comp. Benjamin Britten (sound recording, London OS 26161, 1966).
  27. The Cold War had created bitter division between former allies, and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was unable to obtain permission to travel to Coventry for the premiere, but she was able to join the composer and all the other performers for the work’s first recording.
  28. Cooke, 23.
  29. Oliver, 175.
  30. Mathews, 131.
  31. Philip Rupprecht, Britten’s Musical Language (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 213.
  32. Kildea, 454.
  33. Aldeburgh Festival performers, Curlew River, comp. Benjamin Britten (sound recording, London OSA 1156, 1965), notes by the composer.
  34. Rupprecht, 240; italics in original.
  35. In an earlier work drawing on Christian traditions, in this case the medieval legends of St. Nicholas, Britten had also evoked a world where ordinary reality is suspended and miraculous events occur. The cantata St. Nicolas was composed in 1948 for the centenary celebration of his partner’s former school, and its seventh movement describes the legendary miracle of “Nicholas and the Pickled Boys.” From a pickling barrel in the pantry stores of a cannibalistic master, three of his victims emerge, sweetly singing a hymn: the prayers of the saint have brought them back to life. This and other legends of St. Nicholas have little historical foundation, but the beauty of the music, which alternates vocal solos with choral passages and familiar hymns, invites suspension of our disbelief. The startling reappearance of the resuscitated boys is as dramatic an event – both visually and musically – as the arrival of the specter of the dead boy in Curlew River (Elliott, 39, 67; King’s College Choir, Saint Nicholas, cond. David Willcocks, comp. Benjamin Britten [sound recording, Angel S-60296, 1970].)
  36. Quoted in Kildea, 467.
  37. Aldeburgh Festival, Noye’s Fludde, cond. Emanuel Hurwitz, comp. Benjamin Britten (sound recording, Argo ZNF1, 1960).
  38. Rupprecht, 25-27.
  39. Kennedy, 201.
  40. Oliver, 162.
  41. Michael White, “Remembering Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten’s Lover and Mouthpiece, On His Centenary,” The Telegraph, June 22, 2010,
  42. Oliver, 90.
  43. For that we can turn to an American musical iconoclast of the late nineteenth century, Charles Ives, who shuffled hymns into some of his orchestral compositions like cards from a deck.
  44. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 600.

David Hoekema

Calvin University
David A. Hoekema is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College.