Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) is a work for a small four-part choir, four soloists, and pipe organ by Benjamin Britten. It is based on extracts from the poem Jubilate Agno1 by Christopher Smart. It was commissioned for the 50th Anniversary of St. Matthew's Church, Northampton, by its vicar, Matthew Hussey. Hussey was a well known patron of the arts.

Smart (1722-1771) was a bit crazy. His poem was written during his incarceration in an asylum. He was said to suffer from "religious mania", and his work reflects his unusual, mystical beliefs. Whether describing how flowers battle the devil, or how cats worship God by their movements, the normal Christian concepts of his day are absent. Britten revels in this material, bringing out its unsettling nature and beautiful visions. He seems to have been drawn to slightly odd source writings, like the various verses employed to great effect in the Ceremony of Carols and in Sacred and Profane.

The piece is written in 10 distinct sections, a form inspired by Purcell's cantatas. I refer to them as movements, but they are not as cleanly separated as the movements of a symphony or a concerto.

To my mind, it's not a masterpiece; but it has many moving moments (like IV), witty sections (V) and a few frankly disturbing portions (like VII). This befits the deranged, yet highly expressive poem which it brings to life. It is a fun piece to perform and to hear.

The text follows, interspersed with my comments on the music.

I

The first movement is all in unison and remains on a single pitch right up until the last line. This focuses the listener's attention on the words. The organ is limited to patchy stabs until the penultimate line when its plodding chords swell with the choir, forcing them to change up a minor third on magnify his name before retreating in pitch and volume at the end of the line. The change in pitch and volume on the word magnify occurs to a halting rhythm and seems like a musical magnification.

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues;
Give the glory to the Lord,
And the Lamb.
Nations, and languages,
And every Creature
In which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him,
And magnify his name together.

II

After the gloom and solemnity of the first movement, the second kicks off with a jolly, syncopated organ line. The time signature is highly unusual throughout this movement- mostly a flowing 7/8; but switching into 6/8, 9/8, 5/8 and even 11/8 as befits the words. The choir remain in unison initially. Interest is maintained by the dynamic difference between the loud, declamatory first lines of each verse, and the soft, rapid and precise singing of the last two.

Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter,
Bind a leopard to the altar
And consecrate his spear to the Lord.

Let Ishmail dedicate a tyger,
And give praise for the liberty
In which the Lord has let him at large.

The third verse disrupts the pattern, inverting the initial sequence of pitches and thereby arriving in a higher register. It remains forceful for the first two lines; the forth verse returns to the earlier dynamic pattern, but remains in the higher key.

Let Balaam appear with an ass,
And bless the Lord his people
And his creatures for a reward eternal.

Let Daniel come forth with a lion,
And praise God with all his might
Through faith in Christ Jesus.

After a brief rising organ line, the choir break into harmony for the fifth verse. The pitch is by now quite high, and the entire verse is strident. The next verse begins with a richer harmony- but then drops back into unison on the second and third lines, which spiral ever upward in, (you guessed it) a twirling dance-like pattern.

Let Ithamar minister with a chamois,
And bless the name of Him
That cloatheth the naked.

Let Jakim with the satyr
Bless God in the dance,
Dance, dance, dance.

The final verse is the most harmonically complex and loudest- but its last line calms things down again, descending in pitch and volume to the end. It is accompanied by rapid, repeating descents from the organ.

Let David bless with the bear
The beginning of victory to the Lord,
To the Lord the perfection of excellence.

III

This movement is an a cappella fugue. It starts softly, layering many hallelujahs, and swelling to a peak on artist inimitable. The general trend is to drift upward in pitch. The sopranos begin again on the next line, and are joined by the other parts one after another, each one lagging its prompter by a few beats. Now the trend is to lower the pitch and volume. They gather on the final hallelujah, which is held for several bars so that the listener can strain to hear its simple harmony.

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Hallelujah for 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.

IV

This is the first of three solo movements. It is a setting of extracts from the most popular and oft-quoted section of Jubilate Agno. The soprano voice has a warm, languid melody. The organ part scampers and frolics like a cat at play, while the voice is in rapt admiration- the doting cat lover. The attitude to the animal seems perfectly aligned with Smart's.

The first verse consists of a conversational first line, and then a rising line, and finally a circling line that references the second by concluding on the same pitch in the same rhythm.

For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey.
For he is the servant of the living God.
Duly and daily serving Him.

The organ swoops and trills, introducing the next verse with two more deliberate sequences like the stretches of a content feline. The singer repeats the same three-line melody twice over the first five-and-a-half lines, breaking the pattern for elegant quickness. The next line drops back a little in pitch. A brief pause reveals the organ, still mewling away, satisfied with its lot. The final four lines of the verse are sung to a repeated, two-line theme which first soars and then dives. It complements the calm, soothing words perfectly.

For at the first glance
Of the glory of God in the East
He worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body
Seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he knows that God is his saviour.
For God has bless'd him
In the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeter
Than his peace when at rest.

After a few more trilling bars from the organ, the soloist intones the next three lines to single note, the rhythm matching the speech patterns of a reciter. The last line climbs swiftly to a peak on Almighty an a clear final cadence on God. The organ's chimes in a few beats later- but stops without a resounding conclusion.

For I am possessed of a cat,
Surpassing in beauty,
From whom I take occasion
To bless Almighty God.

V

Now the organ turns from cat to mouse. The main organ theme has a scampering, excitable character; but remains in the background. The Contralto soloist introduces the melodic style of the movement with the first line. It is heroic, dashing and contains pronounced dotted rhythms. Only the organ reminds us that our champion is a tiny rodent.

The second line is sung and played to a single pitch- it forms a kind of recitative. The driving heroism picks up again on Cat takes female mouse, and continues to daring.

For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For- this is a true case-
Cat takes female mouse-
male mouse will not depart,
but stands threat'ning and daring.
...If you let her go, I will engage you,
as prodigious a creature as you are.
For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.

Daring ends on a swooping octave drop. The next two lines are supported with simple chords from the organ- the scampering is less frantic while the mouse delivers his threat. The alto sings this near the bottom of the range. I think this indicates the bluster of the tiny mouse, trying to seem tougher than it is.

The scampering theme takes over again, and we are back in cheery mode. Smart, Britten and the mouse have proved the creature's bravery and so the movement ends. This is done after the brief diversion of a pause in accompaniment on the middle syllables of hospitable disposition.

VI

The final solo movement of this section falls to the Tenor. (The bass soloist is heard among the chorus later). It is a tranquil setting of the words to a gently rising and falling organ line, reminiscent of a field of wildflowers swaying in the breeze. The tenor line is similar, but its movements are slower. It's trend is alternately rising and falling phrases. The exception being the fifth and sixth lines, which start high and fall gracefully.

For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers have their angels,
Even the words of God's creation.
For the flower glorifies God
And the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For the flowers are peculiarly
The poetry of Christ.

The last line has an elaborate dalliance on poetry and finishes on a rising cadence. The organ continues for several bars, ending on a long note that overlays a short rising line.

VII

For me, this is the highlight of the piece. It deals with Smart's incarceration in a direct and powerful way, and how his odd religious sentiments comforted him. There is a stunningly eerie and insidious motif at play throughout the movement. It is heard from the organ at the end of each sentence, and is also sung several times. This four-note sequence is the sound of insanity and suffering. As first heard, from the organ, it is F#-G-E-Eb2, but it as it appears again and again it it transformed in pitch and rhythm. I'll call it the Motif.

The movement begins without accompaniment, in a warped four-part harmony. It is deliberately intoned to the same notes until Saviour, which is strongly accented and opens the chord up a little. As the last syllable is held, the organ softly enters with the first instance of the Motif, which it repeats with shorter notes.

The next line is again sung without the organ, to a repeated eerie chord. A clean break is made before the next line. Here the sopranos and basess jump away toward the extremes of their ranges, widening the chord on He and drawing it closer together until the first syllable of besides, which is in unison. The next chord is simple and continues to the end of the line. Again we are met with the Motif- this time repeated three times as self is held by the choir.

For I am under the same accusation
With my Savior,
For they said,
He is besides himself.

The next line is sung to the same chord as the first, with variance with me bearing the same emphasis as savior did. The Motif chimes in again, and with barely a pause, the next line is sung, low, intense and malevolant- building to a startling high treatment of staff, which includes a crashing chord from the organ. This time the organ's Motifs can hardly be heard- the final one wobbles like an obscene fanfare.

Now the choir has a turn at the Motif. We realise that its rhythm fits the phrase silly fellow, and a sustained chord from the organ screams along beneath. This is the centre of the movement- the emotional content is at its most intense and the choir and organ are at their loudest. The words against me are attacked strongly, and the organ takes up the Motif again. The next two lines are treated to a scoring similar to the earlier For they said, He is besides himself. This time the chords don't draw together into a unison note- the parts miss each other and crash into dissonance on my- but the tension is resolved on family. Instead of ending with two instances of the Motif, the organ gives us one, followed by the same sequence from is against me- a much gentler ending to this part of the movement.

For the officers of the peace
Are at variance with me,
And the watchman smites me
With his staff.
For the silly fellow, silly fellow,
Is against me,
And belongeth neither to me
Nor to my family.

For I am in twelve HARDSHIPS,
But he that was born of a virgin
Shall deliver me out of all,
Shall deliver me out of all.

The movement concludes with a complex but short fugue. It builds to a peak of volume and yearning on the first deliver. It is mostly unaccompanied, but finishes with a final statement of the Motif from the organ- this time rounded off and resolved neatly.

VIII

This movement makes the transition from the stark dread of the previous one to the jauntiness of what follows. The text is again strange. I assume that the letters stand for people Smart knew, and his assessment of of their Godly character follows. This would be in keeping with one of the themes of his poem- the unity of all creation. (If you know exactly what it's about, drop me a /msg)

The movement is mostly a bass solo, subtly supported by the organ. For the first four sentences, the soloist chants the first line over a minor chord, has a flowing melody over the same, sustained chord on and therefore he is, and concludes to a major accompaniment on God. The last line is picked up by the choir and repeated by them.

For H is a spirit
And therefore he is God.
For K is king
And therefore he is God.
For L is love
And therefore he is God.
For M is musick
And therefore he is God.
And therefore he is God.

IX

This "movement" begins directly, with a rapid, syncopated, trilling segment from the organ. The choir set up what the movement is about with their first line, which is sung together. It is a list of musical instruments with some rhyming words that Smart uses to describe their sound. Interestingly, a pipe organ is quite capable of imitating these instruments directly, but Britten resists the temptation to do so.

As the word rhimes is held the organ glissandos down to a starting point for the basses. Each voice takes it in turn to sing one line each to a rapid, cheery tune, and a stuttering, see-sawing organ accompaniment. The movement nominally in a straightforward 2/4, but uses triplets in every line so can be considered as 6/8. The volume and feverishness increases as they proceed.

For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.

Here, things get more interesting. After the sopranos sing of the dulcimer, the organ part becomes a rapid set of arpeggios. The other parts join them for grace place sounds and the clarinet line is sung along with it, one part after another, in a tight round. They come together in unison for and the like. They sing the final line together in harmony, mostly on repeated chords.

For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.
For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound soar more and the like.

The organ descends rapidly, introducing the next verse. The first two lines of it remain in similar harmony, with a pronounced rising and falling line of all the instruments of HEAVEN, which ends in clearly punctuated syllables. The next line is more soothing and sung only by the sopranos- then the rest of the choir pick up their mood and sing the remaining lines, slowly in a solemn, gentle melody. The last last two syllable of each line are in increasingly complex harmony, the rest is in unison. The organ chimes in with sparkling sequences on the end of each line. The last lines are sung by the male parts only and the final soul is held until it fades away into nothingness.

For the TRUMPET of God is a blessed intelligence
And so are all the instruments in HEAVEN.
For GOD the Father Almighty plays upon the HARP
Of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

X

The last movement is a repeat of the third movement, and also trails away into silence.

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Hallelujah for 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.


  1. The poem is not fully noded on e2, perhaps because it's really, really long. Extracts are here and here. The full text is here : http://www.kokonino.com/jubilate/

  2. tdent has informed me that Dmitri Shostakovich used this Motif in several of his pieces, because when written D-Es-C-H it is a transliteration of part of his name. We can't figure out if Britten did this deliberately- but I think it is unlikely that he would wish to call the great Russian composer a "Silly Fellow".


Sources:
Copyright (c) 2002 KENNETH KILFEDDER

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