Hymn to St Cecilia : Work information

(Edward) Benjamin Britten ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Simon Birchall (Bass), Nicola Jenkin (Soprano), Ruth Dean (Soprano), Philip Daggett (Tenor), Caroline Trevor (Alto), Sixteen, Harry Christophers (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Hymn to St Cecilia
Work number
Op. 27
1942-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Arthur Johnson
Mike Hatch
Recording date

Track listing

  • 10:45 min


Britten began his collaboration with poet W.H Auden at the General Post Office film unit, but they also worked on other projects, often with a strong social or political agenda. Their last work together was the choral work Hymn to St. Cecilia, completed as the composer sailed back to his homeland in 1942 after three years in America.

Setting three linked poems with the common closing invocation Blessed CeciliaBritten's music is characteristically luminous and achieves a remarkable emotional unity. The sparkling scherzo of I cannot grow and the darkening tonality of O ear whose creatures build the tension until O dear white children releases it with a visionary clarity. Listen particularly for the way Britten responds to the instrumental imagery in Auden's poetry.

The Composers

(Edward) Benjamin Britten

Born in Lowestoft to a middle-class family, Benjamin Britten composed prolifically from an early age.  Although his mother was an amateur singer, Britten's writing seemed borne out of no more than an obsessive love for the activity, the fruits of which won him the tutelage of Frank Bridge .  At the time, Bridge's own artistic values were developing in an increasingly avant-garde direction.  Although instilling technique and discipline in Britten, his main aim was to encourage him to question whether what he had written precisely matched his intent.

After a miserable public school education, Britten entered the Royal College of Music in 1930.  He found tutors such as Harold Samuel and Arthur Benjamin far less adventurous than Bridge, and he began to look for other avenues of learning.  Plans to study with Alban Berg  came to nothing, but a comission to score a documentary about the General Post Office led both to a new source of income and a meeting with poet W.H. Auden, with whom Britten was to have close personal and artistic ties.

Britten set many of Auden's texts and followed him to America in 1939.  Travelling with him was Peter Pears, a young tenor who became Britten's lover, muse and foremost performer.  After writing successful works such as the Sinfonia da Requiem abroad, Britten returned to his home country and rediscovered his heritage, both through English poetry and through the works of composers such as Henry Purcell , whose work was the basis for his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.  His first operatic success was also English to the core; Peter Grimes was the first of many Britten operas spearheading a revival of the country's vocal tradition.

Gravitating to the nearby town of Aldeburgh, Britten led the instigation of an annual music festival of which his works were the star attraction.  When not engaged in the organisation of the festival he travelled widely; the Gamelan music of Bali influenced the composition of works like the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas and the Noh theatre of Japan informed Curlew River.  A visit to Russia led to a lifelong friendship with cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who he composed for and invited to perform at Aldeburgh.

A gentle person by nature, most of Britten's works eschew the bombast of the Romantic composers.  He was scathing of Beethoven and Brahms, and the restraint of his music has caused many to label him as repressed.  Certainly there are dark undercurrents in much of his work, especially in the malevolent psychological themes of some of his operas, but much of his work is informed more by wry wit and pacifism.  In his later years, Britten was shocked, as he had shocked his predecessors in his day, by the works of Birtwistle, and by comparison his music is accessible.  However, there is always more to it than the surface impressionism one might expect at first listening.