2013 has brought forth an embarrassment of riches when it comes to musical anniversaries. As well as the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi, the year marks four centuries since the musical visionary and murderer Gesualdo died and one since the marvel that is Benjamin Britten was born.
Britten’s musical language is singular and can be tough going, and his sound world can be as disconcerting and strange as it is ravishing. Where in Britten’s output might a casual listener begin? For me, the master keys that unlocked Britten’s universe were his Canticles. A listen to the complete cycle will take less than a single hour of your life but resonate far beyond. Composed between 1947 and 1974, they bookend Britten’s post-war career and form a unique strand in his oeuvre.
“They are song, opera, cantata and chamber music”, says the tenor Ben Johnson, a rising British (and Britten) star, whose critically-acclaimed new recording of the Canticles is out now on Signum Classics. “And so they correspond with the most delicate of intimacy and the most effective of grand gesture”. There can be “no greater summary”, he reckons, of Britten’s work.
Like a prayer
Suffused with spirituality if not overtly liturgical (‘canticle’, loosely defined, denotes a short prayer-like song), they are five precise distillations of Britten’s art: gem-like compressions of his supreme talents as a dramatist of human emotion. Musically spare and occasionally subversive, the Canticles shimmer with dissonance and drama, love and chaos. They seethe, they teem, they shatter.
They are not, Johnson cautions, “easy listening”. But much of the engagement and the wonder – especially for a bookish listener – comes from Britten’s ability to set text with such mastery. As a new exhibition at the British Library explores, Britten always had a splendidly literary intelligence, writing operas based on Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw) and Herman Melville (Billy Budd). The words of the Canticles drink wide and deep across English literature, from the Bible to 17th-Century metaphysical poetry; from medieval Chester Miracle Plays to Edith Sitwell, whose Still Falls The Rain is the basis for the mournful Canticle III – composed in memory of the young pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, who had recently killed himself.
Moments like the ravishing “Farewell, farewell, farewell, farewell my sweetest and farewell…” from Canticle II evoke a sorrow and tenderness that is close to Shakespearean (I was reminded of Lear’s: “Never, never, never, never, never…”). And the tonal radiance of the love letter that is Canticle I, whose sacred text by George Quarles allows Britten to freely exercise the impassioned homoerotic metaphor of some metaphysical poetry, elevates it beyond simply being a moving and brave declaration of Britten’s feelings for his partner and muse Peter Pears: "Ev’n so we met and after long pursuit/Ev’n so we joined. We both became entire.../He is my altar, I his holy place,…/He’s my supporting elm and I his vine."
Poetry in motion
But it is the double setting of TS Eliot in Canticles IV & V that really astonish as they grapple with those old “acknowledged sisters” (as Henry Purcell memorably put it): music and poetry. Much preoccupied with the consonances between the two art forms, Eliot was “not only a great sorcerer of words” according to composer Igor Stravinsky, but “the very key keeper of the language." He was also a poet whom Britten read right up until the very end of his life, even after the heart operation in 1973 that so slowed him down (Canticle V proved to be one of the very last pieces he would write).
Britten’s uncanny and unusual setting of Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi casts countertenor, tenor and baritone as Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar. In its uncomfortably close harmony and shifting time signatures it captures the sheer slog and drudgery of their expedition: "A cold coming we had of it,/Just the worst time of the year/For a journey, and such a long journey:/The ways deep and the weather sharp,/The very dead of winter."
Britten’s music, says Ben Johnson, “makes the listener feel the cold that they speak of. Each character breaks off, sometimes a line or word being finished by another singer before returning to unison or harmony, giving the effect of the three old men remembering bits of information, complaints and grumblings in real time.” The effect is inspired: with each listen, I find I hear a poem that I know and love anew.
As for The Death of Narcissus, written for tenor and harp rather than the expected piano, it is hard to imagine how a composer other than Britten would handle what Johnson describes as “the great wash” of Eliot’s imagery, from the “fish/ With slippery white belly held tight in his own fingers” to the “young girl/ Caught in the woods by a drunken old man/ Knowing at the end the taste of his own whiteness”. Britten’s lines may be long – “full lungs are required to negotiate them”, Johnson quips – but they are “the most satisfying to sing.”
And also to hear. The Royal Opera House will be presenting an ambitious staging of the Britten Canticles next month with a constellation of exceptional talents in tenor Ian Bostridge, pianist Julius Drake and directors Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable. Unfortunately, it is already sold out. But Britten fans might also consider heading to New York, the Netherlands or Moscow, to name but a handful of the international programmes that will also present the Canticles later this year.
I have to confess, I’m already looking into plane tickets…
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.