This is one of a series of five remarkable vocal works composed between 1947-1975. Canticle IV: ‘ Journey of the Magi’, appears after a 17-year hiatus since Canticle III’s composition in 1954. (Britten had in 1962 attempted to compose a fourth Canticle, based on the unusual folk religious text ‘The Bitter Withy’, but the work was abandoned.) The composition of all five tended to follow major operatic projects – and this is no exception, appearing 5 months after Owen Wingrave. There is, however, no obvious connection between the two works; and in fact the vocal forces have more in common with Britten’s next and last opera, Death in Venice which strongly features solo tenor, counter-tenor and baritone. The singers for whom Canticle IV was written appeared in the first performance of Death in Venice in 1973.

Image: Photograph of Pears singing between Bowman, left, and Shirley-Quirk singing Britten’s realisation of Purcell: When the Cock begins to Crow, during the Festival of Flanders. Photographer: Jan Nackaerts.