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Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac

Britten and Pears with Kathleen Ferrier, January 1952 The second canticle was written in January 1952 in-between the operas Billy Budd and Gloriana and the setting reflects the considerable experience that Britten had by now as a composer for the stage. The tale of how Abraham is summoned by God to offer up his own child Isaac for sacrifice is set as a highly dramatic scena, using two voices, tenor and alto, which not only perform the respective roles of father and son but also, singing in rhythmic unison, the other-worldly sound of the voice of God.

Although originally written for the voices of Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier (to whom the work is dedicated), the work gains considerably in impact if the part of Isaac is performed by a boy (as on Britten’s own recording from 1961). When, some ten years later, Britten came to write the Offertorium movement in the War Requiem which includes a setting of Wilfred Owen’s bitter rewriting of the Abraham story ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, he drew on the second canticle for much of the musical material.