Britten’s setting of Psalms 130 and 150

by Simon Collings

The centenary of a great composer’s birth invites re-evaluation of their musical legacy and is often accompanied by the performance of rare and obscure works.  Benjamin Britten’s centenary is no exception. In Oxford a concert on 1 Decmber, marking the start of a year of performances and lectures centered on Britten, included the world premier of two Psalms settings which Britten wrote in 1931/32 while a student at the Royal College of Music.

The revival of these works is due to Nicholas Cleobury, founder of the Britten Sinfonia and conductor of Oxford Bach Choir. Cleobury dug the manuscrpits out of the Red House library, had them published, and directed the debut performances.

These are not unknown works. Both Humphrey Carpenter and Michael Kennedy mention them in their biographies of Britten, but they remained unpublished during Britten’s lifetime, and were not performed. In 1932, When Britten wrote the pieces, Vaughan Williams believed that the chorus at the RCM wasn’t up to the demanding modernity of the music. He did try to have one of the Psalms accepted by the Three Choirs Festival but was unsuccessful. Musical standards have obviously improved in Britain since then, though this remains challenging music to sing.

The programme notes for the concert talked of the influence of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms though to my ear these pieces sounded thoroughly English.  Walton was a far more obvious model, especially in Psalm 150. The composer Michael Berkeley, who was sitting near me, also heard no evidence of Stravinsky.

Psalm 130 is a lamentation and the music in the opening section starts with a sombre melody in the strings and develops into a turbulent and anguished climax. At times the part-writing becomes a little dense. A soprano soloist brings a change in mood, entering on the words ‘For there is mercy…’ She takes up the singing of text while the choir reapeats quietly the refrain   ‘Lord, hear my voice’.  The piece culminates in a fugue and ends with the confident invitation to ‘trust in the Lord’.  Stylistically the music is recognisably in the English choral tradition with an orchestral accompaniment echoing the prevaling style in English string writing of the 1930s.

Psalm 150  is in contrast a celebration. The influence of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was evident here.  Britten makes full use of the references to harp, pipe, trumpet and cymbal in his orchestral colouring. These early experiments clearly point to his use of harp, brass and percussion in his later works. The opening is more straightforward than in Psalm 130, and suits the text. An attractive contrapunctal middle section follows, before the different instruments take their turns in sounding the Lord’s praise.  The work ends with a powerful orchestral coda. Of the two I thought this the more compelling.

Both settings are confident and enjoyable to listen to. They are unmistakably youthful works but interesting to hear. Nicholas Cleobury brought characteristic punctiliousness to the preparation and performance of these peices. The soprano Elizabeth Atherton sang with feeling. The Oxford concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will presumably be broadcast during the coming year.