By the 1960s Britten was well-known for his vocal works – his skill at writing for the human voice, and for setting the most unusual and eclectic words. Voices for Today, as Ben Parry describes in this week’s film, was commissioned by U Thant, the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time – and his taste for surprising verse seems to run entirely amok. While the bulk of the words are a setting of Virgil’s Eclogue IV (set in Latin), there are sentences from 14 other authors (including Sophocles, Herman Melville, Tennyson, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Jesus Christ), chosen for being the ‘great peace-lovers of history’. It had three simultaneous premieres in London, New York and Paris, but even without that logistical complication the structure is somewhat complex. Along with the SATB choir, there is an off-stage children’s choir whose music for the most part is wordless, and has no regular tempo or barlines, only indications of where the two choirs are to coincide. This ethereal ‘out-of-time’ quality recollects a similar device used in the War Requiem, and the effect is powerful and strange. Perhaps because of this logistic complication Voices for Today is seldom-heard but, as Ben suggests, it is well-worth getting to know. Britten’s heartfelt responses to the texts – all yearning in one way or another for a better world – is moving as it is surprising.
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