Britten’s heart surgery in 1973 resulted in the partial paralysis of his right hand, leaving him unable to play the piano properly. Thus, he set about creating a repertoire of works for Peter Pears to perform with the harpist Osian Ellis. As with Canticle IV, Journey of the Magi, the fifth and last canticle sets a poem by T.S.Eliot, one of the few poets whose work Britten felt able to read during his period of convalescence. The work is dedicated to the memory of William Plomer, librettist of Gloriana and the three Church Parables, whose death in September 1973 affected Britten greatly.
Eliot’s visionary early poem, The Death of Saint Narcissus, with its sometimes obscure and complex imagery was a brave choice of text and the composer confessed that he did not fully understand what the poem was about. However, his response to it is sensitive and imaginative with an economy and refinement typical of his late style. Britten had long shown an innate understanding of and affection for the sonority of the harp (A Ceremony of Carols, the harp variation in The Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra and the Nocturne are three of the best-known examples) and his use of the instrument in the fifth canticle is as fresh and idiomatic as ever.
Britten explored the combination of tenor and harp further in the much more light-hearted Burns settings of A Birthday Hansel, written the following year.