World of the Spirit

About the Piece


In May 1938 Britten took time off from writing his Piano Concerto to compose The World of the Spirit, the second of his religious ‘cantatas’ for the BBC, the sung and spoken texts of which were again assembled by R. Ellis Roberts. The success of Britten’s and Roberts’s earlier radio collaboration, The Company of Heaven (1937), a meditation in words and music on the subject of angels, had led to a commission for another work of the same genre. The World of the Spirit was first broadcast on 5 June 1938, with Sophie Wyss(soprano), who had been the soloist in the first performances of Our Hunting Fathers(1936) and On this Island (1937), Anne Wood(contralto), Emlyn Bebb (tenor) and Victor Harding (bass), and the BBC Singers and Orchestra conducted by Trevor Harvey. The spoken texts were read by Felix Aylmer, Leo Genn and Robert Speaight. The BBC rebroadcast the feature in 1939, after which The World of the Spirit remained unheard until its revival in 1995, as part of a BBC Radio 3 series documenting Britten’s music for radio.

There are perhaps two important aspects of The World of the Spirit that demand particular attention. First, the exceptional ‘mix’ of styles, genres and forms that characterizes Britten’s response to his texts, both sung and spoken. If for no other reason, we must take account of this music because it reveals the twenty-four year-old composer’s prodigious versatility and his mastery of a wide range of compositional techniques; while every so often there is an inspiration that reveals the unmistakable musical personality with which we are now familiar.

There are some striking moments. One of these is his first Tennyson setting, The sun, the moon, the stars, which uses an arpeggio pattern similar to one also deployed in the Piano Concerto. Perhaps most memorable of all, though, is the combination of soprano, strings and harp that begins the epilogue, transforming Henry Vaughan’s O knowing, glorious spirit! into a rapt setting. Also notable is the use of plainchant, which has a serene quality in the introduction, but also a hidden power – and brings the work full circle beautifully at the end.ch76538

The second aspect, in a significant sense is tied in which the heterogeneous profile of the first. It was surely the very diversity of the texts – chosen from a wide variety of sources– that challenged the young composer to provide a sequence of music that was in itself anthological in character, e.g. plainsong, chorale, orchestral song, oratorio, Bach-like arioso, a chorus ‘number’ (the barcarolle), etc. However, behind the diversity of texts and music there is a unity of theme and purpose. We do not know precisely how the texts came to be assembled, though they must have been the subject of discussion between Britten and R. Ellis Roberts. But it can certainly have been no accident that so many of them, whether they have their origins in the Bible, Quaker philosophy, English poetry, or reportage of and from historico-political events (the1914–18 war, the Irish ‘troubles’), reflect preoccupations that were to remain the composer’s throughout his life; abhorrence of war, violence and intolerance, and the affirming of peace, justice and reconciliation. It goes without saying that The World of the Spirit does not find the ultimate music to match up with the great issues of humanity that this BBC feature programme from the1930s raises, perhaps with some courage. But Britten’s settings of the Christian injunctions in Part II (‘The Fruits of the Spirit’) clearly outline the shape he was to give to Voices for Today, the work he was commissioned to write for the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations in 1965. It should not be forgotten either that in the 1940s there had been at least two unrealized projects that Britten discussed with Ronald Duncan (the librettist of The Rape of Lucretia), in which works were contemplated that would have inhabited some of the areas touched on in The World of the Spirit. It is for all of these reasons that this hitherto unknown contribution to BBC between-wars radio must be acknowledged as the first step along the road that was eventually to lead to War Requiem in 1962.

Terezin: Journey to Death (John Freund)

After many months of persecution, in which the personal freedoms, status, calling, property and privacy of the Jewish were curtailed, the so-called “final solution” to the Jewish question was to concentrate these citizens until their “liquidation” in extermination camps such as Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau. Thus the Nazi authorities established a ghetto in 1941 in the former fortress garrison town of Terezin, North Bohemia. The fact that Terezin was only a temporary holding place on their journey to death – many Jews were told that Terezin was a spa for the elderly – was concealed. In less than four years of its existence, a staggering 140,000 prisoners from Bohemia, Moravia, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia entered its gates … never to return.

Able-bodied persons as well as children over 14 years worked hungry 10-12 hours a day and lived temporarily in segregated barracks steeped in squalor and disease. Some 15,000 children (ages 9-15) were gradually deported to extermination camps and ghettos in the east. Very few lived to see the liberation of Terezin, often succumbing to hunger, exhaustion and infection before their transfers could take place.

Remarkably despite these atrocities, most Terezin “citizens” were not defeated by the daily suffering and oppression to which they were subjected, but instead took every opportunity to liberate themselves from it. Many in pre-ghetto days had been artists, composers, conductors, singers, instrumentalists and writers. In this mortifying environment, isolated from the world and loved ones, they used all remaining energy to create a rich cultural life encompassing theatrical and musical production, lectures, and the creation of paintings, music, poetry and prose. While realized in secret at first – some lost their lives for this courage – such entertainments sharing hope, pain and tragedy came to be flaunted and exploited through the Nazis’ propagation aims. The Nazi command, in turn, used these activities to demonstrate the well-being and “freedoms” of the citizens.

The citizens’ enthusiasm, sheer strength of will and cultural activity formed a striking influence on the lives and creative endeavours of the child prisoners as well. Separated from their parents, but largely spared a view of the human suffering and tragedy of the adults’ existence, they believed in a happy tomorrow and had no inkling that their own death sentences were written and signed. Beautiful friendships came about and in this spirit of tolerance and unselfishness, the children drew pictures, wrote poems, published magazines and gave theatre performances, expressing their joy and sorrow and sharing their memories of lost homes, longings for family, fears of the present realities and hopes for a life after Liberation. For instance, transferred friends inspired poems of longing to follow them and the wish to meet again somewhere in the unknown. In this childish world of interesting things, friends and fun, the joyless trials of everyday life could be displaced even for a moment.

John Freund — John was born in Ceske Budejovice, Czechoslovakia in 1930. At age 12 he was deported, along with his family, to Theresienstadt. In 1943, he was moved to Auschwitz where he was one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s “Boys of Birkenau” — one of 89 Jewish boys who became slave laborers at the camp, while their families were sent away to be killed. John survived the death march before the advancing Soviet army and was eventually liberated by American troops. He immigrated to Toronto in March 1948, and completed a degree in chartered accounting. John worked for the federal government for 33 years. He regularly speaks and corresponds with students across Canada about his experiences during the Holocaust. His Holocaust memoir, Spring’s End, was published by the Azrieli Foundation in 2007.


CourtneyChngLancaster2Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster has been a professional theatre performer for nearly a decade, on stages across the country. Most recently, she has performed with the Soulpepper Theatre Company in productions of “The Barber of Seville”, “The Crucible”, “The Royal Comedians” and “Death of a Salesman”. She recently completed a run of “The Flood Thereafter” at Canadian Stage and performed in the hit Summerworks musical, “The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw”. Courtney has also worked with The Citadel Theatre, The Blue Bridge Repertory Company and Theatre Conspiracy, among many others companies. She is a graduate of the University of British Columbia, The Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre Company and the Soulpepper Academy.


Selected Theatre: For Soulpepper Theatre: Dirt, The Royal Comedians, The Crucible, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Great Expectations; Theatre Passe Muraille: Elephants in the Room Ensemble; Hart House Theatre: Romeo and Juliet; YPT: After Juliet; Canopy Theatre: Twelfth Night; Awards: Dora Award: Outstanding Ensemble (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) Other: Graduate of the Soulpepper Academy; Graduate of the Theatre and Drama Studies program (UofT and Sheridan College)


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