Monday, December 2, 2013

December 3

"The Annunciation"
by Carl Heinrich Bloch

"Hymn to the Virgin"
music composed by Benjamin Britten, set to a c 1300 verse,
and performed by The Cambridge Singers

Of one that is so fayr and bright 
 Velut maris stella, 
Brighter than the dayes light, 
Parens et puella: 
Ic crie to thee, thou see to me, 
Levedy, preye thi Sone for me 
Tam pia, 
That ich mote come to thee. 

Levedy, flour of alle thing, 
Rosa sine spina, 
Thu bere Jhesu, hevene king, 
Gratia divina: 
Of alle thu berst the pris,
Levedy, quene of Parays 
Maide milde, 
Moder es 

Edward Benjamin Britten was born in the East Suffolk town of Lowestoft in 1913 on November 22:  the Feast of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music.  His mother was a keen amateur musician, and encouraged all of her children to develop their own interests in music.  Of the four offspring, young Benjamin was the most enthusiastic of them all.  At first, it was mathematics and the pattern of the dots and lines on the paper that captured his interest.  He confessed that one day, he took a "drawing" of a musical manuscript he had made, and demanded that his mother attempt to play it on the piano.  The look of horror on his mother's face upset him considerably, but thankfully, her response did not dampen his enthusiasm.  He was soon enrolled in music lessons, and by the age of ten, was studying both the piano and the viola.  He was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged him not only to practice, but also to attend concerts.  It was at one of these concerts that he first heard Frank Bridge's orchestral poem "The Sea", and experienced a life-changing moment.  He was, in his own words, "knocked sideways".  An introduction was soon arranged for Benjamin and Frank Bridge, and Bridge took the boy on as his pupil.

Benjamin Britten's childhood years were remarkable, and he produced a great many works, some of which were of a very high standard. They include a symphony, various other orchestral pieces, works for chamber ensemble, suites for solo piano, drafts for Masses, the symphonic poem "Chaos and Cosmos", and many songs.  All of these works now form the extensive collection of his juvenilia at the Britten-Pears Library.

Even after leaving home to become a boarder at Gresham’s School at Holt in Norfolk, he pursued his musical passion and was extremely prolific.  In spite of terrible homesickness, he wrote, performed and listened to music at every opportunity, and often sat up in bed reading musical scores.  From this time come his settings of poems by Walter de la Mare, Hilaire Belloc, and the orchestral cycle "Quatre Chansons Fran├žaises", with words by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine.

"Hymn to the Virgin" was one of Benjamin Britten's earliest religious choral works, and was written before he left Gresham's School:  he would only have been about fourteen or fifteen years old.  The piece was published in 1930, and first performed at a concert given by the Lowestoft Musical Society in St. John's Church on January 5, 1931.  Britten was then just eighteen years of age.

Many years later in 1956, "Simple Symphony" (a piece based upon works included in Britten's collection of juvenilia) was recorded.  The composer wrote this little portrait of his younger self to be included on the sleeve note:

"Once upon a time there was a prep-school boy. ... He was quite an ordinary little boy ... he loved cricket, only quite liked football (although he kicked a pretty "corner"); he adored mathematics, got on all right with history, was scared by Latin Unseen; he behaved fairly well, only ragged the recognised amount, so that his contacts with the cane or the slipper were happily rare (although one nocturnal expedition to stalk ghosts left its marks behind); he worked his way up the school slowly and steadily, until at the age of thirteen he reached that pinnacle of importance and grandeur never to be quite equalled in later days: the head of the Sixth, head-prefect, and Victor Ludorum. But – there was one curious thing about this boy: he wrote music. His friends bore with it, his enemies kicked a bit but not for long (he was quite tough), the staff couldn't object if his work and games didn't suffer. He wrote lots of it, reams and reams of it."

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