Rejoicing in Rejoice in the Lamb

Although I have sung Rejoice in the Lamb since I was about ten years old - first as a treble and then many times as a tenor – and I have listened to it more times than I can count, it was not until I recently reflected on the work, during this centennial celebration of the anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, that I realized how economical was the composer with his notes in this cantata.  The score is forty pages long, the duration of the piece is about sixteen minutes.  The music is often exuberant, and the tempo markings are specific: the piece begins, Britten tells us, “measured and mysterious,” it advances “with vigor,” the “Hallelujahs” are “gently moving” (the English marking here allowing levels of meaning oddly absent in the Italian, andante con moto).  Britten’s version of the Italian, vivace is delightful; he says it should be “very gay and fast.”  The piece finishes “gently moving, as before.”  Nevertheless, there is a striking economy of notes in relationship to the words.  To an astonishing degree, Britten allots only one note per syllable, seldom more.  Very occasionally he allows a word to possess two notes, but throughout the entire score only four words, by my count, are allowed to be true melismata, in which a single syllable of text is stretched out and held aloft on a string of varying musical notes.

It seems far-fetched to me that this careful rationing of notes is not very deliberate on the part of the composer.  And in the work, the shear dearth of melismatic words or phrases has the effect – once you notice it – of drawing your attention to the few words on which Britten lavished such attention.

The first such occasion is found early on in the work, on page 3, where the first syllable of the word “magnify” is allowed to lengthen out over the space of three notes, spanning a minor third.  “Let man and beast appear before him, and ma-a-a-gnify his name together.”

The next instance occurs a few pages later, in the following musical section, and accompanies the only time the composer repeats a word in the score (other than Hallelujah).  And the word, this time, is “dance.”  “Let Jakim with the Satyr bless God in the dance, dance, dance, dance, dance” – and if you don’t think Britten makes the music dance here, then your ears must work differently than mine.

Next, in the lovely tenor solo on the language of flowers, the tenor is allowed to sail luxuriously along on the word “poetry,” when telling us that “flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.”

Finally, in the lively section where Christopher Smart’s quirky poem recites for us the rhymes of various instruments - the flute rhymes, the shawm ryhmes, the harp, cymbal, and dulcimer rhymes – the poetry arrives at the conclusion that “the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence, and so are all the instruments in Heav’n.”   Here, the music reaches its climax, and the word “all” – describing all the instruments in heaven – is given five notes of its own, before the music starts to come back down to earth.

So what’s going on here?  What could be the significance of this esoteric analysis of the music?

Of course, I think there is some meaning to be found; in fact, I think there are lessons to be learned specifically from the observations I have made about the four melismata to be found in Rejoice in the Lamb.  To begin with, the entire work is a lesson in stewardship.  It was written in 1943 – the middle of the war years, when resources and the basic necessities were scarce in Britain.  It was not the time to be flinging notes about as though there were lots of them to spare, on the one hand.  It’s more like Britten had coupons for only four flights of melisma, and he was determined to use them carefully.

On the other hand, Britten provides a case-study in the availability of music, even if you restrict yourself to a lean diet of notes.  Only one per customer?  No problem: there is still music to be made.  And even when resources are scarce, the score seems to teach us, there are times when a bit of profligacy are called for; there are times (even if they be few) when you need to find a few extra notes and sing them in succession.

So, first we learn that the privations of war are no cause to stop making music, and, in fact, cannot silence music.

Then, of course, there are the four words themselves.

The cantata begins with the choir singing together on a repeated, unison middle-C.  For the first two pages of music, no voice leaves this note, and monotone recitation is the only rejoicing they are allowed to do: one note per syllable, of course.  Until, at the top of page 3, the voices are allowed to magnify God’s name together.  It doesn’t take much: just three notes, rising only the short distance of a minor third.  But then, Mary didn’t have many resources available at her disposal when she lifted up her voice to magnify the Lord, either.  And the lesson this music teaches us is how readily to hand is our own solidarity with Mary’s voice, how little we need to accomplish the feat of magnifying the Lord.

Next, we get to “dance.”  I’ve no idea whether or not Britten was much of a dancer.  I cannot quite picture him being twirled in the arms of his lover, Peter Pears; I cannot envision them pacing out a fox-trot together.  But here, his music seems to invite the rest of us to push the furniture to the side of the room, roll up the rugs, and start moving; to find a different rhythm of life, to break out of the awful two-step of war-time marching and remember what it’s like to live with the blessings of God – to remember that David danced before the ark of the covenant, and that God’s merciful kindness always and still gives us reason to dance, dance, dance, dance!

Once we have finished dancing, there is a long span of music – 11 pages – during which we are back on the strict diet of nearly one note only, per syllable.  Eventually we get to the tenor solo.  And who can disagree, in the face of this gliding melody that floats through the air on the tenor’s voice like pollen being wafted from flower to flower, that flowers are great blessings, that the flowers have their angels, that the flower glorifies God, that there is a language of flowers?  And who knew that poetry could be spelled out in musical notes using only the three syllables of its own lyric?  But here, Britten spells out his own sparse poem with nine notes – one for each of the choirs of angels, (the last three of them, admittedly repeated).

A “slow and passionate” section comes next, leading eventually to the Bass solo, in which, curiously, the word “musick” is itself confined to the rule of one note per syllable.  And then we are led to the ‘very gay and fast” enumeration of the poet’s notion of the rhymes of various instruments.

I suppose that the war had rendered England far gloomier that it normally is, its grey clouds grey-er than their customary grey.  I suppose the black-out curtains rendered the normal dreariness of life far drearier.  I suppose life was thread-bare and hungry.  I suppose it was the shared loss of so many husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons that really unified the nation more than anything: the relentless news of death, its sadness tamped down only by the need to respond to the next air-raid siren, to take cover, and plan for things to get even worse.

Shared suffering may unite a people, but it leaves you wondering who you are.  It leaves a nation fractured and scarred.  It separates those who stayed home from those who served, old from young, and those who survived from those who were killed.

The war in question finished off an already limping empire.  And by 1943, left them wondering if they had enough blood, toil, tears, and sweat to endure.  Britain had imagined itself to be a holy land, blessed by God, and possessed of a royal priesthood of the Gospel, which she had carried to the ends of the earth.  And now she was broken down by war and suffering.  Her song of praise was stuck in her throat, her trumpets would soon lead her men to their slaughter on the beaches of Normandy.

But for a moment, in 1943, all this suffering, uncertainty, and death was lifted up on the wings of five notes proffered by Britain’s own homynymous composer – recently returned from his own self-imposed exile from the war, because he realized he needed to be in England during its hour of trial, he needed to help lift his countrymen from their grief and sadness (which would grow deeper still before the war ended).

“For the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence, and so are all, [all, all] the instruments in Heav’n!”  he bade them sing.  All the instruments of heaven now sing the glories of God.  In the span of five notes, the gulf between heaven and earth is narrowed, and we are not so far from those who have gone before us – so many of them, too soon.  And aren’t our voices, too, among the instruments of heaven?  Can’t we hear the blessed intelligence of God’s trumpet blasting a new song into our ears, our hearts, our wars, our world, our lives?

The story we write for ourselves is a story that separates us, one from another, by means of race, religion, and resources.  But Britten’s war-time music reveled in a moment of blessed unity under the unified music of heaven – all find a voice beneath the one, equal music that an earlier English voice had declared reigns in heaven above.

As a lesson in stewardship, then, I rejoice in Rejoice in the Lamb.  From its carefully rationed resources is great beauty wrung.  From lunatic verse does it find a way to make sense, and to teach its listeners to magnify the Lord, to dance even when you feel crippled, to treasure poetry above all other language, and to remember that all, all, all voices are enlisted in the blessed intelligence of heaven!

And should all else fail, even in times of deep austerity, when we cannot possibly imagine expending more than one note per syllable, still this great anthem leaves its song in our hearts and on our lips:

Hallelujah, hallelujah,

Hallelujah from the heart of God,

And from the hand of the artist inimitable,

And from the echo of the heavenly harp

In sweetness magnifical and mighty.

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.



Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

16 November 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 16, 2013 .