A Hymn to the Virgin

Benjamin Britten

A Hymn to the Virgin

About this work

A Hymn to the Virgin for unaccompanied chorus (1930) is one of Benjamin Britten's earliest works. In fact, this composition is the earliest surviving piece of church music written by the composer. Britten received his early education at a public school, known as Gresham's, in Lowestoft. At this school, which Britten began attending in 1928, the young boy was taught primarily by Frank Bridge. Bridge was a viola player and a composer of high regard in England. Much of Britten's early musical and political ideals were shaped by the teaching and guidance of Bridge. The teacher firmly established in his greatest pupil two "cardinal principles." The first being loyalty to one's individuality and the second, an constant goal of impeccable technique.

Britten composed A Hymn to the Virgin in July, while he was serving a spell in the school sanatorium. Britten did not have access to standard music paper, so staves were drawn on plain paper for the original manuscript. The anonymous text was taken out of the Oxford Book of English Verse, which was readily available to Britten at Gresham's. A Hymn to the Virgin, along with The Birds (1929), which was a piece for solo voice and piano, were some of the first of Britten's compositions that he allowed to be published. Both of the pieces were composed prior to the completion of Britten's first opus, Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra (1932). A Hymn to the Virgin was first performed at a concert given by the Lowestoft Musical Society in St. John's Church on January 5, 1931. The piece was slightly revised in 1934 and was published a year later. The choral work was always loved by Britten. Throughout his life, the composer mourned his loss of innocence and longed for a return to his childhood. A Hymn to the Virgin was one of only two pieces by Britten to be performed at his funeral service on December 7, 1976.

The work is scored for eight-part chorus, divided into two separate choruses. The first chorus starts the piece with a one-bar phrase in English and the second chorus echoes the phrase, but in Latin. This echoing pattern continues, in some form, throughout the composition. These antiphonal effects make the work Britten's closest to traditional English devotional music.