Benjamin Britten was a celebrated 20th century composer who is best known for “bringing back” English opera. Like musical theatre, an opera is a play in which the words are sung, and has been popular in Italy since it was invented there in the 17th century. English opera was less common after the death of composer Henry Purcell in 1695, but Purcell’s music inspired Britten to return to the genre, starting with the opera Peter Grimes in 1945.
Besides opera, Britten wrote many other kinds of music for singers, including the chilling War Requiem in memory of World War II. During the war, Britten also wrote the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb for the anniversary of a church. A cantata is like a mini-opera without costumes and acting, and J.S. Bach famously wrote over 200 of them on everything from the Bible to his love of coffee. Below is a recording of Rejoice in the Lamb by the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge, in 2 parts.
A cantata has several parts, or movements, which are either for the chorus (all singers), or a solo (one singer). Below is a chorus movement that is written as a fugue, a form that is similar to the canons we discussed in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Listen to how each voice starts singing the melody at a different time, but joins together with the other voices at the end.
The libretto, or lyrics, of the cantata are from a poem by Christopher Smart, who wrote it when he was supposedly insane. This religious poem includes such odd ideas as the “rhymes” of different instruments (the cymbal’s are bell, well, toll, and soul), and the letters H, K, L, and M. The poem is best known for its description of Smart’s cat “Jeoffrey”, a section which Britten sets as a lovely solo for treble (high women’s or boy’s) voice. Listen to this solo below, along with the following movement, which is an alto (low women’s voice) solo telling the story of a mouse.
Besides voice and percussion (drums and cymbals), the only instrument you will hear is the pipe organ. Organs were the original music synthesizer, popular before the invention of pianos and electronics. They came in all shapes and sizes, from hand-cranked versions played on street corners, to enormous instruments still used in churches today. Organs have several stops, or groups of pipes, that each make a different sound, and the largest organs can imitate an entire orchestra with hundreds of stops. in the movement below, listen to the different dynamics (loud and soft) and timbres (the instrument it sounds like) that the organ can play.