December Object of the Month
As Christmas draws near our next object of the month is a choral work written by a sixteen year old Britten, ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’
Every month, a member of staff from the Britten-Pears Foundation chooses their favourite item or object from the archive. This month features Librarian Dr Nicholas Clark:
Manuscript of 'Hymn to the Virgin' © Britten-Pears Foundation
"The object of the month I have selected is the manuscript for the 'A Hymn to the Virgin'. It's a popular choral work which Britten composed in July 1930 (he revised it at the end of that year, and did further revisions four years later for its publication). It was composed when he was a Gresham's School, suffering from illness. He was probably not supposed to be working on his music at the time - the fact that he had to rule the staves himself onto blank paper indicates that printed music paper was clearly not available to him. The text is by an anonymous poet and dates from about 1300. It's a macaronic verse; that is a poem in which one language is introduced into the context of another. The main body of the choir sings verse in English and another semi-chorus (or group of soloists) supplies a refrain in Latin. I recall being a tenor soloist in this piece singing the Latin refrains, which are, in fact, easier to sing than the primary English text!
The first performance of 'A Hymn to the Virgin' occurred on the 5 January 1931 at St John's Church, Lowestoft. It is, in all aspects, an extraordinary work by a sixteen year old composer. Melodic, dramatic, and integrating two choral parts to great effect, the 'Hymn' is an early example of Britten's mastery in word setting. A paean to the mother of God, referencing the Nativity ('Thu bere Jhesu, hevene king'), it is an appropriate choice for December as we near Christmas."
Hear British vocal ensemble VOCES8 perform the work on YouTube