Watch the performance of Britten's Canticles recorded at the Linbury Theatre ROH in July this year. Brilliant performance from Ian Bostridge who catches the many complex moods and undertones. "My dear Darling" his Abraham sings to Isaac, sweet words laced with poison, for dad intends to kill. The Third Canticle, Still Falls the Rain is powerful. Bostridge captures the very non-Christian mix of religious piety, erotic tension and anti-war protest. The staging adds political context, fundamental to its meaning. Listen to the "sour" horn, a pointed subversion of the way the instrument is so often used in military music. There's also a connection to Britten's Serenade for Tenor, horn and strings, where sweetness conceals death "O Rose ! Thou art sick", completed in war time, nearly twenty years before Still Falls the Rain. .
In 1947, homosexuality was illegal and careers could be destroyed if any whiff of scandal became public. Canticle One, My beloved is mine and I am his is a shockingly bold statement of The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. "I give him songs, he gives me the length of days". The text is Biblical, and refers - we assume - to the relationship between God and man. The piano introduction is tender, almost lullaby-like. Perhaps it is a morning after, as this Jones staging suggests. The juxtaposition between religious text and homosexual love is audacious. This Canticle could still shock the pants off Middle England and the Choral Evensong culture.
Abraham and Isaac, the second Canticle (1952), takes its cue from medieval mystery plays, but revitalizes them with Britten's characteristic asperity. A dominant God, for which one might read authority, society and patriarchal values, demands that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son. Exquisitely beautiful cadences, gruesomely horrible meanings. Iestyn Davies is a much better Isaac than David Daniels was eleven years ago. Davies's voice is purer, stronger, less rococo and much more idiomatic. Isaac agrees to being sacrificed, which suggests that he's more than a typical "innocent". Like the Boy in Curlew River, (another key work in which Britten explores stylized symbolism), Isaac's death has redemptive power. This time it's God who is moved and relents. Britten's Innocents are not as passive as one might think.
Still Falls the Rain (1955), based on Edith Sitwell's poem about the Blitz, is even more equivocal. A horn drones (Richard Watkins). It evokes the sound of an air raid siren, the drone of a bomber's engine, the sound of vast mechanical processes grinding away, mindless and impersonal. The staging was particularly evocative. We saw the white cliffs of Dover, as pale as the bodies of innocents, then shots of munitions factories churning out missiles - pointedly phallic. The gloom is punctuated by staccato piano, making the connection between bombs and the hundreds of nails in the Holy Cross, and in Christ's body. Julius Drake played with adamant ferocity. This isn't pretty music, even when the horn leaps into a jaunty march. Bostridge sings the long arching lines so they ache and tantalize. Wails of agony or something more? The poem is a curious blend of religion and the horror of war. Britten suggests that there might be even stranger, possibly erotic elements. Consider Isaac's sacrifice, and ultimately the surreal imagery in Canticle Five, written when Britten himself was confronting death.
Bostridge, Davies and Drake are joined by baritone Benedict Nelson for the fourth Canticle. The Journey of the Magi (1971) may seem oddly quaint after the drama of Still Falls the Rain The Three Kings speak in matter-of-fact conversation. They're preoccupied with the coldness of the night and the physical difficulties of travel. The birth of the child at Bethlehem seems almost an afterthought. Yet listen to the curious blending of the three voices. This isn't a chorale.
In 1974, Britten was so ill that he could not play the piano. The Death of St. Narcissus is thus scored for harp (Sally Pryce). The harp gives this last Canticle a curiously ethereal quality. Its strings seem to shimmer, evoking light and frragility. But is this light the natural light we'd expect from the modern equivalent of an arcadian lute? At first, we're lured into the shadow of a rock, lured by "something different". The poem, by T S Eliot, blends references from classical antiquity with the image of St Sebastien, pierced by arrows, dying for one he loved. Quite probably, Britten didn't read Yukio Mishima on St Sebastien, but he must have understood that the symbolism wasn't strictly Catholic. Someone, perhaps a tree, a girl, or a fish, has been ravished and corrupted. But the poem continues. "because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows, he danced on the hot sand until the arrows came. As he embraced them, his white skin surrendered itself to the redness of blood and satisfied him". How does one read this image? One thinks of Tadzio, dancing on the beach in Venice, watched by dry, doomed Aschenbach. Perhaps Britten is contemplating beauty, fragility and the nature of creative life.