The fourth canticle, Journey of the Magi, a setting of one of T.S.Eliot’s best-known poems, was written in January 1971 for three of Britten’s closest musical colleagues: the counter-tenor James Bowman, tenor Peter Pears and baritone John Shirley-Quirk. It is a somewhat pessimistic and bitter poem which foregoes the more traditional elements of the Christmas story and instead concentrates on the mundane aspects of the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem and their bewildered attempts to understand what they witness there.
The canticle was composed some seventeen years after its predecessor Still Falls the Rain, during which time Britten’s style had undergone considerable changes, most notably an enhanced flexibility in the fields of rhythm and harmony partly influenced by his encounter with the music of the Far East which bore such remarkable fruit in the three Church Parables of the 1960s. There is a link between the fourth canticle and the Parables in the use of plainsong as a source of musical material (in this instance the Antiphon Magi videntes stellam, symbolising Christ’s nativity), while the use of the voices, often singing in rhythmic unison, evokes memories of the three Israelites in The Burning Fiery Furnace. The piano provides much graphic imagery from the lumbering footsteps of the journey by camel to the revelation of the plainsong which appears towards the end like a sudden ray of sunshine in an otherwise austere and barren world.