Benjamin Britten

Britten on the beach at Aldeburgh, 1959. Photo by Hans Wild.

Britten on the beach at Aldeburgh, 1959. Photo by Hans Wild.

Britten: The Trials of Innocence

Three-part programme note for Sloane Square Choral Society, 8 December 2013, discussing Jubilate Deo in C (1961), Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (1952) and Saint Nicolas: A Cantata (1948).

On Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac (1952): There is surely no more heart-rending passage in all of Scripture than the tale of Abraham and Isaac, recounted in Genesis 22:1–14. Out of nowhere Abraham hears a disembodied voice calling his name, 'Abraham,' and without pausing for thought he responds to it: 'Behold, here I am.' No indication is given of where the speakers might be in time and space for this is a landscape of the mind, in which the only fact of importance is Abraham's readiness to obey the commands of the mysterious power that he can hear but not see. The voice is everywhere and nowhere, and Abraham conceives himself, in every respect, bound to do its bidding without question.

The voice continues: 'Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.' Abraham, it will be remembered, was nearly a hundred years old and his wife, Sarah, only a little younger when the couple's only child, Isaac, was miraculously conceived. The ancient man loves Isaac with all his being; the boy is the flower of his long existence, his present delight and his hope for the future. In any event the death of Isaac would be a dire calamity. Now Abraham is instructed by a voice whose words emerge from the void to commit the most unimaginably awful deed: to murder Isaac and offer up the child's body as a burnt sacrifice.

Every feeling of human warmth and affection recoils in horror from this hateful injunction, yet Abraham is impassive and submissive. He cuts wood for the fire, loads up his donkey, and sets off with Isaac until they arrive at the place of sacrifice, which he recognises by uncanny intuition. There he takes his knife and a flame, and builds an altar on which he arranges the firewood. Finally, Abraham binds Isaac, places him on the altar and reaches for his blade. Then, just as he is about to strike the fatal blow, he hears another voice, the voice of an angel, that calls to him 'out of heaven': 'Abraham, Abraham.' Again, the Patriarch responds, 'Here am I.' Now the tension is released and the story comes to its familiar conclusion. Abraham has passed the test that God has set for him by proving his unstinting obedience; therefore Isaac's life can be spared and a ram that happens to be caught up in a nearby tangle of undergrowth is sacrificed in place of the boy.

Biblical exegesis accounts for Abraham's actions by seeing in him a type of God the Father, 'who so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life' (John 3:16). The intended sacrifice of Isaac prefigures the redemptive death of Jesus and in the context of this overarching narrative the story of Abraham and Isaac acquires a long-range happy ending. Stripped of that explanatory framework, however, this is an intensely disquieting episode. Translate the events into daily life and Abraham cuts a deeply troubling figure. What kind of awful compulsion could make a man behave the way Abraham does? What thoughts pass through his mind as he sets out on his journey, knowing he intends to murder his innocent child? What does he feel as he is about to kill the person he loves most in the world? In ordinary life, if a person fulfils a terrible command of this sort, delivered by a faceless voice (something that regrettably happens all too frequently), he or she is condemned as a lunatic and a criminal – morally, emotionally, and intellectually ruined. If Abraham escapes that judgement, it is because the human tragedy of his story has been so smothered by doctrine that it is barely discernible.

To view the full programme click here.