Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

In his book Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension, Graham Elliott quotes Britten reflecting on his sacred choral compositions: “The manner in which you approach the Christian idea delighted me. I used to think that the day when one could shock people was over—but now, I’ve discovered that being simple and considering things spiritual of importance, produces violent reactions!”

Benjamin Britten wrote two settings of the great hymn of praise, the Te Deum in C of 1934 and the Festival Te Deum in E, op. 32, composed in 1944. In the Festival Te Deum, Britten follows the classical form of dividing the text into three parts each with a distinct character: a quiet beginning, an agitated and boisterous middle, and a calm, but intense third section. It opens with an almost trance-like, unworldly effect with the organ in strict triple meter while the voices unfold the text with chant-like effect in competing and varying meters.  At ‘Thou art the King of glory’ the music abruptly changes character with an explosive choral passage followed by an energetic organ response. The sopranos reach a climactic high B at ‘in glory everlasting’, and then the music quickly subsides into the dreamy atmosphere of the opening with the introduction of a soprano soloist singing ‘O Lord, save Thy people.’  The works concludes with a serene plea by the soloist, ‘Let me never be confounded.’

©Ryan Turner

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