Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

In July of 1964 the “Aspen Award for Services to the Humanities” was presented, for the first time, in a ceremony in Aspen, Colorado. Unexpectedly, however, the inaugural recipient was not a scholar of the humanities, nor a philanthropist, nor a leader. The award was presented to a British composer, Benjamin Britten, who at the time had just turned 50, and whose centenary we celebrate in 2013. No doubt, it was the premiere of the War Requiem in 1962, more than anything else, which earned Britten the Aspen Award; it was seen to provide a model of art that could be socially engaged without becoming ideological propaganda.

The Cantata Misericordium, commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross was premiered in September of 1963 at a ceremony marking the hundredth anniversary of the organization’s founding. It has been seen as a sort of miniature appendix to the War Requiem, addressing similar themes, and premiered with the same two vocal soloists, Peter Pears and the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. But while the requiem enacts human powerlessness in the face of inhumanity to which the only resolution can be found in reconciliation and spiritual redemption, the cantata was conceived to express the possibility of action to combat suffering.

The idea to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan occurred to him early on, as did the decision to use a Latin text. (In the Aspen address Britten explained that his choice of text is always dictated by the composition of the audience, saying “it is insulting to address anyone in a language they do not understand,” and since the audience at the Red Cross ceremony was to be international and polyglot, Latin seemed the appropriate choice.) He began with the Biblical text, which was too short, then began to search for Medieval Latin texts which might be suitable. It was only at this point that he was informed by the representatives of the Red Cross that it would be absolutely inappropriate for the work to have any explicitly Christian content—or indeed any religious content at all—as a nonsectarian stance was fundamental to the mission of the Red Cross. The only remaining solution was to commission a new text, in Latin, telling the parable of Jesus in completely “humanist” terms.

And so Britten commissioned a libretto from Patrick Wilkinson, a scholar who spent his entire career teaching Latin at King’s College, Cambridge. The text of the cantata is correspondingly somewhat “academic” and lacking in obviously expressive poetic qualities. Instead, the most salient quality of the text is its recondite, elegant, Classical Latin diction, quite distant in flavor from the more easily-understood and plainspoken Medieval Latin usually found in sacred choral music. Unfortunately it is exactly this quality which is impossible to translate. For example, just seven words sung by the chorus about the Levite, "Hic quoque conspexit iacentem, præteriit, acceleravit gradum," in Latin seem to rush by as quickly as the Levite himself, while the same sentence in English plods along: “This man also saw the one who is lying [there], passed by, [and] hastened his pace.”
After a ritualistic yet expressive choral introduction beginning with the words “Blessed are the merciful,” the tenor and baritone soloists in turn present two quotations on the theme of loving one’s neighbor, the first from the first-century AD atheist Roman author Pliny the Elder, and the second from the Old Testament book of Leviticus. The tenor and baritone together in harmony ask, “But who is my neighbor?” and the parable begins. Each event and emotion of the story is painted in bold, distinct blocks: the Traveler’s fear, the violence of the robbery, the loneliness of his abandonment, and so on. The passage of time is represented by a tonally and rhythmically ambiguous “ritornello” for string quartet. The chorus both narrates and reacts to the story as it unfolds; its vituperation toward the priest and Levite who pass by without helping are particularly evocative and memorable.

When the Samaritan finally arrives, he begins by singing the same music which the chorus sang on the word “merciful” at the opening of the cantata—a reference that seems obvious on paper, but is magical in performance, as if the Samaritan were the human embodiment of the abstract idea presented earlier by the choir. (This clear yet subtle use of recurring and transformed material is typical of Britten’s dramatic music.) Now for the first time in the cantata, events begin to overlap: the chorus rejoices, the Samaritan frantically knocks on the door of the inn and makes arrangements, the Traveler begins to return to life. As the parable ends, the Samaritan sings a gentle lullaby while the chorus reacts first with reverence, then with awe. Finally the opening music returns to accompany the final exhortation of the choir to audience, confirming the sense that we have witnessed not just a drama, but a ritual. The audience of a ritual is meant to be not only entertained, but transformed. This might be Benjamin Britten’s greatest legacy to the twenty-first century: he sustained the belief that modern music could still have this transformative power.

©Gregory Bloch

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