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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain (1955)
While Britten maintained good friendships with a number of his composer contemporaries, some relationships were more strained than others. Although Britten admired William Walton, who was ten years his senior, after their first meeting Britten wrote in his diary: ‘To lunch with William Walton at Sloane Square. He is charming, but I feel always the school relationship with him – he is so obviously the head prefect of English music, whereas I'm the promising new boy.’ But he and Britten shared many musical passions, among them a love for the poetry of Edith Sitwell, and in 1932, Walton composed the entertainment piece Façade, on poems by Sitwell. Considered by many to be abstract nonsense poetry, in the same manner as Lear’s Jaberwocky, the text was unlike anything audiences had heard before, and the work was catapulted to fame as one of the turning points in twentieth-century composition.
Not all of Sitwell’s poetry is quite so obscure, and much of it focuses on the war which surrounded her during the early 1940s. Despite admiring her work, it was some time before Britten felt able to set Sitwell’s poetry to music, so raw was the immediate aftermath of the war in Britain. But in 1954, three months after the premiere of his opera The Turn of the Screw, Britten wrote to his publishers that he had been ‘deeply moved’ by Sitwell’s poem, Still falls the rain and ‘felt at last that one could get away from the immediate impacts of the war and write about it.’ The setting became his Canticle III for tenor, horn and piano, one of five unconnected canticles which Britten wrote at different times during his career. The poem itself was written in 1940, shortly after the air raids on London, and as a result it is saturated with a dark and sombre melancholy, the text probing a sense of disillusionment with man and his predilection for war, despite Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross.
Sitwell attended the first performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, for which Dennis Brain and Peter Pears were the soloists, and was so overwhelmed by the result that she and Britten agreed to collaborate on a series of further settings of her poetry for performance the following year. The event was titled The Heart of the Matter (1956) and featured additional settings of Sitwell’s poetry, with Canticle III as the centrepiece of something that could be considered a chamber cantata. United by the theme of war, the other ‘movements’ of the work comprise a Prologue, ‘Where are the seeds of the Universal Fire’, a song entitled ‘We are the darkness in the heat of the day’ and an Epilogue, ‘So, out of the dark’, along with a fanfare for solo horn which, harking back to Britten’s Serenade, frames the entire sequence. Despite its musical beauty and tight integration of music and text, there were no further performances of the work in Britten’s lifetime and Britten appears to have suppressed its publication until well after his death. This, despite the fact that Britten gleefully told Sitwell that the composition of Canticle III had made him feel ‘on the threshold of a new musical world’. Perhaps its touching exploration of the delicate concept of death proved too difficult to deal with in the years of ill health that plagued Britten’s final decade.
© Jo Kirkbride