On Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’..
I am quite a fan of the music of Benjamin Britten, whether the early works such as the rumbustious Sinfonietta or the playful Frank Bridge Variations, the middle masterpieces like Peter Grimes or the War Requiem, or the austere final works such as Death in Venice or Phaedra. I had thought until recently that my favourite works of his were the wonderfully inventive Nocturne for tenor, strings and obbligato instruments or the paired-down genius of the church parable Curlew River, but I have recently been reassessing my judgement and decided that my favourite work is one of the earliest – A Hymn to the Virgin. This work for unaccompanied chorus dates from 1930 predating Britten’s first published work, the Sinfonietta, by two years. It is, however, undoubtedly not a work of juvenilia but rather one of the most subtle, mature and succinct works Britten would ever compose, and certainly one of his most successful sacred pieces.
In writing this blog entry I picked three random books on Britten to see what was written on the Hymn to the Virgin, and was shocked to discover that it was hardly featured in any of them. David Matthews in his book Britten (Haus, London, 2003) merely states that it is “more characteristic of his mature style”; Michael Kennedy in Britten (Dent, London, 1981) is slightly more illuminating when he states “a gentle and fluent work belonging very strongly to the tradition of English religious art” and more worryingly the work isn’t mentioned at all in the 450 page Britten Companion (Faber, London, 1984). I would have thought this small but beautifully formed masterpiece would be worth a few more sentences?
The choir is split into two groups who respond antiphonally (one then the other) each taking off from where the other finished. The simple, homophonic, diatonic harmony is clear and bright moving effortlessly around A and D minor and the form of the piece is equally clear with a slower more serene A section moving to a more animated B section half way through (2.25 ). The use of the macaronic form is interesting with choir I singing in English and choir II in Latin and the choice of Medieval text helps add to the sense of restrained timelessness which A Hymn to the Virgin exhibits. Perhaps the best bits are the cadences that end each phrase (1.03 + 2.13) and the piece as a whole (3.25), the wonderfully piquant dissonances which resolve so beautifully are at once both ancient and modern and thoroughly English.
I’m not sure if Britten ever really bettered this? The piece is free from the mannerisms that are prevalent in much of his later work and there is a sense of innocence and maybe even naivety which is somewhat endearing and which is not present in other pieces. Yes, if you didn’t know the piece you might not guess it was Britten, but along with Walton’s Drop, drop slow tears and Howells’s A Spotless Rose I think it marks one of the high points of English choral music in the first part of the twentieth-century.