It can have escaped the attention of few – if any – that 2013 has marked the centenary of the birth of a figure regarded as the foremost British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten (1913-76). The centenary year has been a triumph most notably for the Britten Estate. The marketing and outreach that has either been instigated or passed through the office of the Britten Estate is second to none. I doubt even the centenaries of Mozart and Beethoven were as well represented. But the joy of Britten – who is noted particularly for his vocal works, and the vitalisation of British opera – is that he wrote numerous works specifically for young people, so schools the length and breadth of the Britain, and beyond our shores, have been able to become involved in performance of such works as Friday Afternoons and Noyes Fludde. Indeed, on Britten’s birthday itself – this coming Friday, 22 November – hundreds of simultaneous performances of Friday Afternoons will commemorate that date, with the involvement of over 100,000 children around the world, in places as far flung as America, China and Australia, not to mention 118 in Britten – sorry Britain! – alone (see here). That date also marks the beginning of Lichfield’s Britten Festival, organised by Cathedral Director of Music, Cathy Lamb: a weekend of events which begins with the coming together of pupils from several schools in Lichfield in two performances of Noyes Fludde.
The full calendar of events is follows:
Friday 22 November
- 3.0pm: Noyes Fludde. Cathy Lamb conducts the performance, which is being directed by the Canon Precentor, Wealands Bell, with Fran Ambrose as Noye and Ailsa Cochrane as Mrs Noye.
- 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, featuring Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin.
- 7.30pm: Noyes Fludde (second performance).
Saturday 23 November‘s events are as follows:
- 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, including the Hymn to St. Columba and canticles by Henry Purcell, who was a great influence on Britten.
- 7.30pm: Evening Concert: Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir will be joined by DECO (the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra) in performances of both St. Nicholas and The Company of Heaven, conducted by Martyn Rawles.
and there follows a busy Sunday:
- 9.30am: Choral Matins, including Britten’s Te Deum and Jubilate as well as Purcell’s Hear my prayer;
- 11.0am: Choral Eucharist, including Britten’s Missa Brevis and ‘This Little Babe’ from A Ceremony of Carols;
- 1.0pm: Lecture by Paul Spicer: ‘Benjamin Britten: Too Original for his own good?’
- 3.30pm: Choral Evensong, with Britten A Hymn to St. Cecilia and another set of canticles by Purcell.
- 5.0pm: Recital by Yours Truly, with Ben Lamb at the piano, including Britten’s marvellous Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.
Speaking personally, it is a manically busy weekend, but is one to which I am looking forward with great excitement. I am involved in every event except for the Eucharist and Lecture on the Sunday (the Eucharist being sung by the boys’ and girls’ choirs, so the gents of the choir are not required). I am The Voice of God in Noye and one of the three readers in The Company of Heaven. However, it is the recital which is the most exciting fare of the weekend (and the one for which I am most likely to be rather weary, after all preceding services and events of the weekend!) It is not perhaps the joyful finale, but a dark, introspective look at the human condition. The recital begins with the three songs written for Ronald Duncan’s play This Way to the Tomb, which ends with the Purcellian Ground Bass of ‘Night’. There follows Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s powerful song, ‘Job’s Curse’, which sets the scene for The Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1965. This is one of the most extraordinary works I have ever performed – one of the most difficult to learn, but by far one of the most satisfying. The programme concludes with four folksong arrangements by Britten. These are not the light froth that one might associate with the idea of folksong, but darker tales of loves lost.
I hope to see you sometime over the weekend! For more details you can download the flyer here.