Record cover (RCA Victor)
Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, or Festival Cantata, was written for the 50th
anniversary of the consecration of St. Matthew's Church in Northampton. It
was commissioned by the former Vicar, the Very Reverend Walter Hussey. The
piece was first performed on September 21, 1943.
The text for the cantata is excerpted from a poem entitled "Jubilate Agno", by Christopher Smart. The eighteenth century poet was in an insane asylum when he wrote it, and although there is a delightful sense of madness in the poem, the religious character of the work is the most striking. The manuscript is not complete, and the fragments of it were not found until 1939. Their discoverer, William Stead, published them under the name "Rejoice in the Lamb." Britten chose ten of the most celebratory and religious sections to set to music.
The piece is scored for male choir, organ, percussion, and four soloists.
Text of Rejoice in the Lamb
Then, demonstrating the influence of Purcell's music on Britten, a fugal Hallelujah chorus once again rejoices in God.
A boy soloist enters, singing the famous section about "my cat Jeoffry". The text is very imaginative and charming. The cat's antagonist, a mouse, challenges and threatens him for taking a female mouse. The piece continues with nonsense rhymes of instruments and concludes with a repetition of the Purcellian Hallelujah fugue.
Christopher Smart was born 11 April 1722 in Shipbourne, Kent. His father,
Peter Smart, died in 1733, when Christopher was eleven. He entered Pembroke
College, Cambridge, as a sizar in 1739. In 1740 he won a scholarship; he
received his degree in 1743; he received a fellowship in 1745. He had to
relinquish this, after getting married to Anna Maria Carnan in 1753.
Smart was a prolific writer; he had published verse in Gentleman's Magazine, and had many works to his name. In 1756 he had an illness which could have led to his first breakdown. From 1757-63 he lived in various asylums. Among the symptoms of his insanity were his sudden compulsions to pray in public, at any time or place. His marriage collapsed in 1759.
Smart wrote a great deal of his poetry while insane; however, it didn't help him survive financially. In 1770 he was arrested for debt, and imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison, where he died, 20 May 1771, at the age of 49.