The five works to which Britten gave the title ‘canticle’ are all settings of texts of a religious or spiritual nature and each is scored for a different combination of voices and instruments, the one constant element being the tenor voice parts written for Peter Pears. The first canticle, for tenor and piano, was written in 1947 and first performed in November of that year at a Memorial Concert for Dick Sheppard (founder of the Peace Pledge Union). It sets a poem by the 17th century metaphysical poet Francis Quarles, derived from verses from the Song of Solomon. Although ostensibly a text celebrating the poet’s ecstatic communion with God, Britten clearly meant the work also to be interpreted as a declaration of the personal and professional relationship that now existed between himself and Pears. The composer described the form of the work as “a new invention”, though partly modelled on Purcell’s Divine Hymns which he was editing for publication at around this time. Although through-composed, the work is clearly divided into four distinct sections: a smoothly-flowing barcarolle, aptly reflecting the water imagery of the first two stanzas, a short recitative followed by a nervously excited scherzo with springing canonic writing and, as Epilogue, a Lento characterised by solemn dotted Lombard rhythms (which Britten had used to very different effect in ‘O my blacke soule’ from his John Donne sonnets), accompanying rapt vocal phrases representing the spiritual union of the poet and his beloved.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Britten-Pears Library