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The Golden Vanity

The Golden Vanity cover picture

Music for Boys' Voices by Benjamin Britten - The Choristers of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Director: Stephen Darlington
Organ: Clive Driskill-Smith
The Golden Vanity

A Ceremony of Carols

Wolcum Yole!
There is no rose
That yongë child
As dew in Aprille
This little babe
In freezing winter night
Spring carol
Adam lay i-bounden

Missa Brevis in D


Sanctus and Benedictu
Agnus Dei

Children's Crusade

Total playing time 71m 14s

The Golden Vanity

Music for Boys' Voices by Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten was renowned throughout his life as a prolific composer of children's music, and his affection for young people and interest in their world was a defining characteristic of his personality as an artist. In addition to this he showed an enduring affinity for choral writing, and - combining these two interests - the pieces on this disc represent some of the best examples of his music for young voices. Britten began writing for choirs whilst still at school, including in his early output such works as the Hymn to the Virgin and A Boy was Born. He never compromised his often highly modernistic style when writing for young performers, and always managed to challenge his singers' technical abilities as well as cover a broad spectrum of emotions in his works for children.

The Golden Vanity was composed in 1966 for performance by the world-famous Vienna Boys' Choir, who commissioned it from Britten and went on to perform it at the Aldeburgh Festival. A vaudeville on the old English ballad of the same name, the work's double chorus of trebles tells the story of a sea battle with Turkish pirates, the humble cabin-boy who saves the day, and a treacherous sea-captain who refuses to keep the promise of his daughter's hand in marriage and lets the hero drown. The music is permeated by folk-like shapes that bring to mind traditional English sea-shanties, although an undertone of dissonance and chromaticism reminds us that the story is in fact a dark one of betrayal and death. In his use of folk-song idioms Britten shares an interest with older composers such as Vaughan Williams, but the melodies are treated in a very different manner from the style of his predecessors. The work's pungent harmonies (including abundant semitonal clashes in the piano part) help to create an uncomfortable and at times even raucous effect. Although The Golden Vanity initially appears to be a more lighthearted work than the Children's Crusade, we are nonetheless presented with a tragic, typically Britten-esque hero; the lonely, suffering boy, abandoned by all those around him. It is worth noting that Britten's own schooldays were deeply unhappy, and it is probable that feelings about his own lonely youth are reflected in music such as this.

A Ceremony of Carols is written in a very different vein from the Children's Crusade and The Golden Vanity, possessing as it does rather more of a sense of innocence and bright exuberance. The dissonance level is much lower in this earlier work, but although imbued with energy and brim-full with singable melodies there are also numerous effective passages of a more reflective nature. Written in the depths of wartime, this is undoubtedly Britten's most famous work for boys' voices. Nonetheless, although the piece is scored for a three-part choir of trebles with harp accompaniment, its first performance - in Norwich Castle in December 1942 - was given by the women of London's Fleet Street Choir. Britten composed much of A Ceremony of Carols whilst travelling back from America to England by ship, and his choice to write what has come to be seen as such a self-evidently “English” work can be interpreted as an expression of his feelings on returning home after his exile. Setting early carol texts, Britten creates a wide range of effects from his little group - different movements feature soloists (including the particularly haunting This Yongë Childe), playful rhythmic writing (Adam lay i-bounden) and the use of canon (in the bravura choral showpiece, This little Babe). Unifying the whole cycle is the plainsong antiphon, Hodie Christus Natus Est, an ancient chant from the Christmas liturgy. The antiphon can be heard here in the Procession and Recession, and is also subtly featured in the improvisatory harp Interlude at the heart of the work.
Britten's Missa Brevis is a remarkable piece, written in 1959 to mark the retirement of George Malcolm, director of Westminster Cathedral Choir. Britten was a long-time admirer of the continental, full-bodied sound that Malcolm had cultivated in the Westminster choristers, and the Missa Brevis provides ample opportunity to showcase the impressive abilities of Cathedral trebles. It opens with a commanding Kyrie and dance-like, syllabic Gloria, which - despite its vital rhythms and some almost jazz-like chordal progressions - is actually based on medieval plainsong. At the core of the work is the Sanctus, which opens with a full twelve-note row presented by three cleverly overlapping voice parts, highlighting Britten's growing interest in serialism at the time. In the Benedictus Britten takes the traditional approach in his choice to use soloists, but the staccato word-setting is very unusual. The Agnus Dei is perhaps the most extraordinary movement of all, with its menacing organ pedal ostinato and dissonant interjections from the manuals; the melodic phrases too are chromatic and punctuated by ominous rests. In some ways almost prefiguring the style of the War Requiem, this movement provides a contrast with many composers' preference for soothing Agnus Dei settings. The abrupt unison phrases and return of staccato writing at the text “miserere nobis” (“have mercy upon us”) enhance the impression of a fearful and urgent plea to God, bringing Britten's mass for trebles to a dark and highly unsettling conclusion.

Britten composed the Children's Crusade in 1968 for the Choir of Wandsworth School. It received its first performance the following year in St Paul's Cathedral, London, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Save the Children fund, and he himself once described it as a “very grisly piece”. The text was translated by Hans Keller from Bertolt Brecht's Kinderkreuzzug, and - like The Golden Vanity - the work has a dark message to deliver about man's inhumanity to man. Its sympathy with the suffering of Polish children during the Second World War aligns it with several other twentieth-century English musical tributes to Polish wartime anguish, including Bax's Five Fantasies on Polish Christmas Carols and Elgar's Polonia. The story tells of a group of children wandering through war-devastated Poland in 1939; they become lost and eventually perish, and even the dog they find along the way dies of starvation. This bleak concert-opera's message demonstrates the similarities between the world of children and our own, even more violent one, and that their lives are inextricably bound up in our conflicts. The atmospheric use of rattling percussion and the low, rumbling registers of the piano produce a truly desolate effect, and the text preserves the feel of Brecht's original vernacular narrative. The stark, rhythmically-flexible recitative style -whilst engaging with twelve-tone techniques - also betrays Britten's burgeoning interest in Japanese culture at this time, as does the addition of free-sounding percussion to the ensemble.

Sophie Biddell
Oxford 2003

The Choristers of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, was founded just under 500 years ago by Thomas Wolsey and Henry VIII. The Choir performs daily services throughout the year in the Cathedral. The boy choristers attend their own Choir School attached to Christ Church and about half of the men are undergraduates at Oxford University.

There are regular radio broadcasts of Evensong, Concerts and Services. And of course, the Choir is heard regularly singing the Mr Bean and Vicar of Dibley theme tunes on TV, in addition to other theme tunes and incidental music for TV dramas and documentaries. The Choir undertakes a prodigious recording schedule with two further recordings due this year.

Now world famous in their own right for the excellence and versatility of their singing, in the last couple of years alone, the Choir has toured to great acclaim Japan, the USA (St Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Chicago and - just before Christmas 2000, a brilliantly reviewed trip to Washington with the Folger Consort) and also performed at festivals in Freiberg, Germany and Antwerp, Belgium. In August 2002 they made their first visit to the Lahti Festival, Finland, and in November the Choir performed two concerts in Paris, one at Notre Dame. In April this year the Choir gave two concerts in Lourdes. As well as these tours further afield, the Choir gives concerts throughout the year around Britain, this last year performing twice at the Royal Festival Hall, St John's Smith Square, the Aldeburgh Festival, the Nimbus Concert Hall, Monmouth, The Sheldonian, Oxford and of course, Christ Church Cathedral. The Choir continues to work with a number of TV producers, most recently featuring in the Channel 4 BAFTA winning documentary series, Howard Goodall's Big Bangs and has just been seen again on Channel 4 in Howard Goodall's Great Dates. They also featured in Channel 5's Christmas Story, in a documentary on Robert Hooke, and are currently filming for a documentary on Britten.

Stephen Darlington

Stephen Darlington is one of the country's leading choral conductors. He was Organ Scholar at Christ Church in the early 1970s, before four years as Assistant Organist at Canterbury Cathedral and then Master of the Music at St Albans Abbey, where he also directed the International Organ Festival. In 1985 he returned to Christ Church as Organist and Tutor in Music. Since then he has divided his time between establishing the College as an acknowledged centre of academic musical excellence, and maintaining the highest choral traditions of the Church of England in Christ Church Cathedral. An extensive discography includes several award-winning CDs. He has travelled worldwide both with the Choir and as an organist and conductor. Under his direction, the Choir has sung with many great artists including Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, James Bowman, Paul Whelan and John-Mark Ainsley. Also, he has collaborated with some of the most distinguished contemporary composers such as Judith Weir, John Tavener, Robert Saxton and Howard Goodall. From 1999-2001 Stephen was President of the Royal College of Organists. He is currently Choragus of the University of Oxford, and is the holder of a Lambeth Doctorate.

Clive Driskill-Smith

Clive Driskill-Smith was a Music Scholar at Eton College and then Organ Scholar at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Organist at Winchester College for a year. He graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, where he was Organ Scholar, with a First Class Honours degree in Music in 1999 and with the MPhil in 2001. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists with the Limpus, Shinn and Durrant prizes in 1998 and was awarded the W. T. Best Scholarship by the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 2002. Winner of top prizes in the Calgary International Organ Competition and the Royal College of Organists' Performer of the Year Competition, he is represented in North America by Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists and is currently Sub-Organist of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.

Recorded in the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on 1st - 2nd July 2002 and 20th - 21st March 2003 by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter.

Produced by Richard Tanner
Recorded and edited by Lance Andrews
Cover lino print by Jane Andrews