Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Abraham and Isaac, Benjamin Britten & The Old Stile Press

The Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is a peculiar and, for some, problematic one. There are currents of conflict and tension and impartial readers often react strongly to God's role in the story finding God's behaviour anything between incomprehensible and abhorrent. Even people of faith have to admit that the story is not easy reading. Essentially it is a folk tale that has been placed into a sacred context and yet it retains all its ambiguity and darkness, which is perhaps why it is difficult to reconcile with the way people are used to reading stories in the Bible.

Among other things, the story is one in which innocence is tested and lost: I think this is true of both human characters in the story. It was therefore a natural choice for Benjamin Britten to set to music as his work often explored the theme of a child's change from innocence to experience. A little while ago I showed on the blog the cover of the sheet music for Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac with art work by John Piper. The text of the Canticle is taken not from the Bible but from the perhaps blunter and earthier version in the Chester Miracle Plays. The Canticle was originally written for Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, and thus is written in the tenor and the alto voices.

When Britten came to record it for the first time, however, he chose to use a boy's voice. Boys often sing alto parts in choirs briefly as their voices begin to change but nowadays there is a movement in the training of boy's voices for choirs which suggests the adoption of the Cambiata voice (the changing voice) and Britten's Canticle might be said to be the first piece of music written with that moment in a boy's development in mind.

 The boy Britten chose to record the Canticle, John Hahessey, was right on the very edge of change. To listen to the recording is to sit on the edge of one's seat. Musically, you understand that one wrong move from the boy and his voice will not make it through the next bar, and the whole performance becomes one which is suffused with the possibility of humiliation and at the same time a depth of trust between boy-singer and the conductor/composer that he won't be put in that position. It is the musical incarnation of the trust between Isaac and his Father and between Abraham and his Father.

It was this original recording in all its rawness and poignancy that inspired Nicolas McDowall at The Old Stile Press to commission J. Martin Pitts to create lino cut images to illustrate the libretto and tell the story. It is possibly the only book in the Old Stile Press list which could be classed as a graphic novel since the text is also the speech of the various actors and the story is told as much through the images as the text. Often the prints are huge stretching across two pages.  It is one of my very favourite books with Pitts illustrations and through the magic of the internet I hope you might click on the box below to take a moment to listen to the Canticle whilst looking at the images that were inspired by it.

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