This is the first of Britten’s five canticles (number four was our first Work of the Week back in January. It was composed in 1947 to a text by the seventeenth century poet Francis Quarles, which had the subheading ‘Canticles ii, 16’: the poem draws on the Old Testament book The Song of Songs, or ‘Canticum canticorum’ – also known as the Canticles. Taking its lead from The Song of Songs, Quarles’ poem is full of beautiful, sensuous imagery and is punctuated by the regular refrain ‘I my best beloved’s am – so he is mine’. The ‘he’ in the original text is no doubt meant to be God; but in Britten’s setting, composed for his lover Peter Pears, it has a further and unmistakable resonance.
Canticle I was first performed at Central Hall, Westminster, on 1 November 1947 as part of a memorial concert for Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union. It is remarkable that this heavily romantic song, performed by two men on stage and with a male-specific love object at the centre, did not give rise to any comment. As Paul Kildea puts it, in his biography of Benjamin Britten, ‘What polite and peculiar times were these when such a display could go unremarked?’. This Canticle was featured in our Queer Talk exhibition in 2017: it is a work which bravely expresses same-sex love at a time when it was very dangerous to do so.