Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb

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In Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, the words “silly fellow” are set to a transposition of the famous DSCH motif that Shostakovich used extensively.

Was this deliberately making fun of Shostakovich? I am not sure that Shostakovich had made much use of DSCH prior to 1943, so it may be coincidence, but it seems so pointed from the perspective of 2009. Did, then, Benjamin Britten discover and initiate the use of the DSCH motto in 1943?

How was Rejoice in the Lamb received at the time? I would imagine that the church choir in Northampton would have been depleted of younger men as a result of the war, and that the idiom of the piece may have been difficult to grasp.

I think it’s a most beautiful, haunting piece, spine-tingling. The words are a large part of this, and I’ve been thrilled by them ever since I first sang them. I have come across people who are bewildered by them, though – the same people, I’m sure, are puzzled by the Rimbaud poems Britten used in Les Illuminations. Poetry doesn’t have to have an exact meaning that one can analyse, any more than music does.

In 1944 Peter Pears wrote to Britten about Rejoice in the Lamb, “That is still your best yet, you know.” An interesting comment, considering that when the letter was written Pears had already given the premieres of the Michelangelo Sonnets and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Britten himself seems to have been very pleased with the first performance in Northampton, and refers in a letter to Walter Hussey (who commissioned the piece) to the “very efficient and charming choir and soloists”, who apparently learnt the piece “very thoroughly” at short notice. He also says of the organist that he had “seldom heard such rhythmic playing from an organist”. There was also a very complimentary review in The Times, saying that “the spirit of the curious, vivid poem has been caught”, and calling it “a work not to be placed in any of the usual categories, but certainly beautiful”.

I don’t think it’s known what the choir thought about it.

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2 Responses to “Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb

  1. Britten admired Shostakovich, so if there is an intentional use of DSCH, it seems unlikely to be with mocking intent. Rather, perhaps, he thought of Shostakovich as another persecuted artist, which is how Christopher Smart was describing himself in the “silly fellow” passage. But it is going out on a limb to propose that Britten used this motto to represent Shostakovich before Shostakovich himself did.

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