Faculty of Music

Benjamin Britten: A Gala Concert

Sunday, December 1, 3 p.m.
Paul Davenport Theatre, Talbot College
Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University
Ticket Information

Jennifer Moir, conductor 

Selections from A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28
            Wolcum Yole!
            There Is No Rose
            This Little Babe
            Interlude (Harp Solo)
            In Freezing Winter Night
            Deo Gracias
Kathleen Gahagan, harp
Victoria Meredith, conductor
Janelle Timmermans Scharringa, piano

Hymn to the Virgin (1930/rev. 1934)
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard (1943)
sung by the men of the choir
Flower Songs (1950)
     The Evening Primrose
     Ballad of Green Broom
Holly Langohr, assistant conductor
Gloriana (1953)
Sacred and Profane  (1974-75)
     St. Godric’s Hymn


Alain Trudel, conductor

4 Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33 a
     I. Dawn
     II. Sunday Morning
     IIII. Moonlight
     IV. Storm

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34


In honour of Benjamin Britten’s centenary, two of the Don Wright Faculty’s choirs, the Western University Singers and Les Choristes are proud to present many of Britten’s significant choral works from across the span of his career. Britten’s choral works express an important part of his composition style and each selection demonstrates many of his music’s most unique features.

This afternoon Les Choristes perform seven numbers from one of Britten’s best known and most performed works, A Ceremony of Carols. This brilliantly composed and dramatic selection arranged for treble voices and harp is divided into eleven pieces each demonstrating a unique style and mood. Today we will hear seven of these. The challenge for performers is to create equality and blend throughout the parts, in order to fully demonstrate the wonderful colour of Britten’s chosen text.

The Singers’ portion of this afternoon’s performance has been placed in chronological order, and offers a varied look at the challenges of Britten’s choral works. The first selection “Hymn to the Virgin” is acknowledged for being Britten’s first choral work, which he composed when he was sixteen. This lovely masterpiece is one of his most well-known and best-loved choral pieces. The small semi-chorus adds a dramatic element to the simplicity of the carol. The next piece, “The Ballad of the Little Musgrave and Lady Bernard” is sung by the men of the choir and is accompanied by piano. This dramatic work tells the story of an unfaithful wife and her lover who are caught in the act and murdered by the lady’s husband, Lord Barnard. Flower Songs, a collection of five songs, is realized as Britten’s finest set of choral work, written as a 25th wedding anniversary gift for Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst of Dartington Hall, two ambitious botanists. The Singers present two works from this set: the ever-so-slightly sentimental “Evening Primrose,” and the exceptionally humorous “Ballad of Green Broom.” The following work, “Concord,” is one of the colourful pieces that form a masque in Britten’s opera Gloriana, which was performed by the local people for the Queen Mother on her visit to Norwich. The last selection “St. Godric’s Hymn” from Britten’s Sacred and Profane was written a year before Britten’s death in 1976 and is known as Britten’s final and most challenging choral work. It is interesting to notice that during the earlier part of Britten’s career he centred his works around the Virgin Mary (“Hymn to the Virgin”), and near the end of his career he focused again on composing hymns to the Virgin Mary.

Leanna Getty (‘15)

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: During World War II Benjamin Britten was working for the Crown Film Unit, writing music for documentaries. He was sought out by the producer-at-large Basil Wright to compose the score for a film requested by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry wished to use the film to educate schoolchildren about the various orchestral instruments. Britten titled the soundtrack he wrote for the film The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell). The theme is based on a hornpipe Britten drew from the incidental music Purcell wrote for the play Abdelazer. The work was premiered—and has since been performed—as an orchestral work, initially with a narration written by Eric Crozier.

When teaching, Britten never used examples from his own works, pulling rather from compositions by other composers. Britten also thought very highly of children. In a letter to Basil Wright he wrote: “I never really worried that it was too sophisticated for kids—it is difficult to be that for the little blighters!” In fact, he wrote The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with a specific child in mind—eleven-year-old Humphrey Maud. Little Humphrey played the cello, and it is possible that the solo cello section, which stands out from the other sections as sounding distinctly melancholy and tender, was a dedication to the child.

The Four Sea Interludes were created to cover set changes within Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. In 1924 Britten first heard Frank Bridge’s The Sea, and was astounded by its beauty. This work (and Bridge’s music in general) proved to be a window to modern music for Britten. The sea has been identified as somewhat of a mother figure to Britten—or perhaps father figure, given the influence of Bridge on Britten. The third and fourth interludes from the Four Sea Interludes pay homage to Bridge through their respective titles and moods.

In the first Interlude, the strings and woodwinds sound out the consonant, bright notes in the scale as the brass play major triads. The effect is one of peacefulness and simplicity. Through the course of this Interlude some dissonances are introduced, but each time they are assimilated by higher instruments. The second Interlude is a radiant summer Sunday morning; the town of the Borough is bustling. The third Interlude paints a picture of a moonlit evening, and draws our minds out to sea. The fourth Interlude is very evocative, sending images of howling winds, squalls, and a turbulent sea into our minds. These storms are capable of destroying whole stretches of cliffs.

When the orchestra sat down for their first rehearsal of the Sea Interludes, the music staggered them. John Ireland attended the premiere of the Interludes conducted by Britten. He was very impressed, writing to a friend: “In some respects he could twist every other composer in this country round his little finger.”

Alexandra Danahy (‘14)