Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Benjamin Britten: Choral Dances from Gloriana

It is not necessary to take a view on the success or failure of Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana to be able to enjoy and appreciate these five Choral Dances. However, a little background information is useful.
Gloriana was completed by the composer in 1953 as a major part of the musical celebrations for the Coronation. It was ‘Dedicated by gracious permission to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’. In many ways this was an a-typical opera for Britten. The three-act work was made up of several tableaux, rather than a developed narrative that had been the hallmark of Peter Grimes or Billy Budd.
The basic ‘plot’ of the opera was the relationship between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex: it explored the dilemma the queen felt between her sense of public duty and the affection she had for the Earl.  The Earl was condemned to death for treason.
The opera was not particularly well received at the time: in fact, it has been suggested that the young Queen was not amused by watching the ‘affairs’ of her illustrious predecessor. The audience were apparently bored, the critics were disappointed, and the composer became displeased with the work.

The Choral Dances are derived from the second act of Gloriana. In the first scene of this act, Elizabeth I is portrayed making her royal progress to Norwich. The loyal subjects decide to present a masque in her honour. In the opera, the scene was choreographed and was performed by dancers from the Royal Ballet. There were six tableaux which were introduced by the Spirit of the Masque.
The Choral Dances opens with Time, a vivacious madrigal that explores considerable rhythmic and harmonic patterns that are both adventurous and engaging. The second, Concord is written entirely in perfect chords: there is no dissonance. It is a lovely dance that is both ‘simple and subtle’. The two concepts of Time and Concord are united with a well-written, ‘graceful’ double canon, juxtaposing male and female voices. The sprightly Country Girls dance is written for women only. This movement makes extensive use of dotted rhythms and antiphonal use of the voices. This dance is balanced by an energetic scherzo-like movement for male voices, Rustics and Fishermen which is hardly as bucolic as the title suggests. Perhaps the listener will be reminded of the composer’s Spring Symphony? The Final Dance of Homage is a well-poised and gorgeous setting of the subjects final bidding to Gloriana:-
These tokens of our love receiving,
O take them, Princess great and dear,
From Norwich city you are leaving,
That you afar may feel us near.

Donald Mitchell in the Musical Times (February 1955) noted that the Choral Dances ‘gain much from being detached from the distraction of the stage (i.e. the ballet!). In their concert guise it is possible to concentrate exclusively on the freshness of their invention, their beauty of sound and the aptness of their musical imagery.’
To the listener nowadays, when all argument about the opera’s worth seems largely irrelevant these choral dances seem like a perfect fusion of music from the two Elizabethan eras. 
There is a full performance of these Dances on YouTube performed by the Hart House Chorus. 
With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this programme note was first published. I have made a few minor editorial changes.

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