Britten, Rejoice in the Lamb: Meaning
Date: Fri, 29 May 1998 18:36:10 EDT
Subject: Rejoice in the Lamb --compilation
Thanks for all of your thoughtful responses re: my questions. sorry to
be a bit long in getting the compilation out. -- Judith
Two questions re: Britten's *Rejoice in the Lamb* which I have both sung and
conducted. Way back when we sang it in high school, one girl refused to sing
it on religilous grounds because it was written by someone considered
QUESTION 1: For those of you church musicians who have performed the work,
how has your church congregation responded to the unusual text?
QUESTION 2: I have always done the work with smaller forces. Have any of you
done it with a festival-size choir of say 100- 120?
Church of the Saviour
I am not only a musician, but also a consumer advocate in mental
health and pastoral psychotherapy. I had a strong reaction to the issue
Christopher Smart, the poet of "Jubilate Agno" (Rejoice in the Lamb) was a
gifted poet and devoted Christian who happened to be manic-depressive.
Today, manic depression is treated with medication and is no different from
any other chronic medical condition such as diabetes. In the 18th century,
however, there was little understanding of mental illness and all types
were labeled "insanity". Smart spent several years in an asylum. His
manic depression manifested itself in the ecstatic, visionary character of
his poetry. However, few would think that he was anything other than
prophetic and there is little doubt that his poetry speaks magnificently of
God's power and love. There are several texts by him in the Hymnal 1982
including "We sing of God, the mighty source". Another text which
obviously arises from his sense of God's presence is "God shall the broken
The reaction of the person who refused to sing the Smart text is outrageous
and not remotely Christian. I would be shocked and offended if anyone took
such an attitude of stigmatizing mental illness in the name of
Christianity, as if illness were sinful. I feel certain Jesus would not
agree. One of the most powerful aspects of Christian witness is that God
is with us in our suffering because he himself suffered. Smart obviously
knew this and is a voice for us.
In fact, people in your choir and in your audience who have themselves
struggled with depression - a large segment of the general population -
would probably find that the movement "For I am under the same accusation
with my Savior" reminds them that God is with them in their trouble. How
could you argue with the strength of: "For I am in twelve hardships, but
he who was born of a virgin shall deliver me out of all." ...?
Sorry to go off like this, but this statement pushed a button!
When I did Rejoice with my community chorus, a couple of my members refused to
sing it because they thought the text promoted humanism and a "New Age"
philosophy. This was pretty much beyond me, but I assume they objected to the
idea that cats and mice can worship God.
I have done the work with 60 voice church choir, a 50 voice collegiate
choir, a 75 voice high school choir and a professional quartet. It
worked well in all mediums. Different gifts and challenges to each.
Generally the audience/congregation has responded well to the text, as
have the singers, when ample program notes and supportive materials were
There is in fact considerable doubt as to whether he was in fact insane.
Don't know the ins and outs of it, but it's worth looking into. Even if he
was, some of it is very inspiring (I am a Christian myself). Britten only
uses part of the text 'Jubilate Agno', and the whole thing is quite
fantastic (particularly the bit about the cat).
The congregations I have sung it to have always been university type
people who "know about it already", and haven't reacted adversely
One of my favorite pieces, favorite texts. Was this high school girl
suggesting that insane people can't have religious convictions? What a
strange battle to choose to fight.
I think if the piece is presented with the proper attitude, not trying to
"act crazy", a congregation will be moved.
I've done it w/ 65 people and it was OK. 100-120 and you might risk some
rhythmic sloppiness (deadly).
Really? And how would she respond to having to sing (religious) music
written by Schumann, Smetana or Wolf?
I have never had a negative response to the text. Most well read and
intelligent people accept it for what it is, enjoy it and go on. As for the
festival choir..I would be a little hesitant. Firt, there is so darned much
to deliver so fast, and I think that the big choir would be a little heavy
sounding. Just my opinion.
We did the "Rejoice" on a Concert Series Concert, not in worship. Not
sure if that's a fair comparison. Choir of sixty plus, Methodist
church in the burbs. It was a concert featuring all of our choirs, so
the audience included parents of all the children's choirmembers.
No problems. I won't say everyone was equal in their praise of the
piece, though they did praise the performance. I am enthusiastic about
the work, about Britten's care in choosing the text to say what he
thought needed to be said. It wasn't so much what Smart intended, but
what Britten CHOSE out of the ranting, endless Smart pages that I
This got us around the "insane" part rather nicely. Who hasn't felt
that the purity of animals at times better represents God than humans?
Who hasn't felt the beauty of flowers, of nature? Who won't admit
that there is a loss of mystery and wonder in the church that we need
to recover? These are the main points I tried to bring out.
I, too, have sung and conducted it many times. Always in concert, never in a
regular service of worship. While I find it deeply religious (deeply
Christian), I would not do it in a service unless the entire congregation were
top level choral musicians. (We don't use foreign texts here in the service
I have done it with large choir and think it works very well that way.
Just a couple thoughts (probably not original, but hopefully helpful)
regarding the text of the Britten "Rejoice in the Lamb."
The text is a small selection of verses from a major work called "Jubilate
Agno" by Christopher Smart. It ought to be available in any substantial
As far as Smart being judged insane, I'm sure that there are many historical
precedents for this determination when a person is a threat, real or
perceived, to those in authority. At the moment, I cannot think of any
specifics, but I'm writing this rather hastily.
Also, are there not a few characters in the Bible who would probably be
considered insane by our more recent standards? How about every one who
"heard voices," (e.g.- Moses, Jeremiah... all the prophets, for that
matter...St. John, Paul, Joseph) or did something really crazy (e.g.- built an
ark in the desert, told people to look at a snake to get healed, ordered all
the prophets of another religion - Baal worshippers - to be murdered). There
are tons of examples along this vein.
It's been a few years since I actually laid eyes on "Jubilate Agno," but I
remember that much, perhaps most of it is laid out as an alphabetic acrostic,
a traditional form used in ancient poetry. This form is highly structured
and requires a fine mind to make it work. The Biblical book of the
Lamentations of Jeremiah is set as an alphabetic acrostic in the original
Smart attributes human qualities, including worship of God, to cats, mice, and
flowers. This makes some people uncomfortable. When introducing the text to
your congregation, you might consider including such Biblical references as
the last Psalm ("let everything that breathes praise the Lord") and the words
of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday ("I tell you, if these [my
disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out"), as well as references
to the entire creation being redeemed by Christ (Romans 8:22ff, Revelation 21,
and others I can't find right now).
100-120 voices should work just fine if they keep to the same tempo: yours!
I would think that the increased dynamic possibilities would be exciting.
As you know, you have chosen an outstanding piece of music which can serve as
a very effective vehicle for worship. I wish you all the best in your
preparation and performance.
I'm currently working on Rejoice in the Lamb with a choir of 120 and it is
working well. They're enjoying it, and it's proving useful in developing their
own technique. I'd thoroughly recommend it - as for the text, I've had nothing
other than interest and curiosity expressed. Hope that this is helpful advice.
I have since done it with my church choir (some 10 years ago by now). . .it
absolutely blew everybody away, to the point where the presiding minister,
after we were done, got up and asked "Does anybody know where we are in the
service right now?" And my choir loved it.
Methinks, based on the above, that it would do fine, although getting the
fleetness required in sections 2 and 8 out of a big chorus might be difficult.
BTW: The whole of RITL can be had in a Penguin anthology of the poetry of
Christopher Smart. Most of his "sane", "conventional" poetry is rather
pedestrian compared with RITL; RITL reads like somebody trying to contain the
whole of creation in verse; it's a fascinating read!
Do you use this in a "service" setting? It IS true that the poet was
insane, and, unlike one might imply from the title, the work is not a
sacred piece by any means.
I'm sorry, but I get so "bugged" by this "religious grounds" excuse. I
think I have as much religion as the next guy. Who ever heard of someone
saying, "That's against my religion; my religion doesn't allow for
insanity!" Put another way, would Jesus condemn a man because of mental
illness? The bottom line here is that religion has become an excuse to
refrain from doing something one doesn't want to do, an excuse for
keeping one's mind closed.
A better argument against doing the piece in a church setting is that it
is non-biblical and non-liturgical. But this argument doesn't hold
water either! What about all those hymns and songs we sing in church to
express our *feelings* about our religious beliefs? Insanity or no, we
should look at the text and see it as someone's expression of religious
faith. And is it ever interesting to examine that text! It holds up to
theological scrutiny while provoking lots of thought.
I hope this gives you fuel for the argument in favor of performing the work.
To answer your question, though: I have not performed this as part of a
service, but only as part of a concert (with a church choir, in a
church). My recollection is that the text was thought provoking to the
audience. It was the *music* that was disturbing!
No. I would think it is possible, but one mustn't overpower the organ.
Even assuming you have a huge organ, there is a lot of intimacy suggested
in the piece. This includes the solos, of course, but also the
"hallelujahs". My personal preference would be for a choir of no more
than 50 or 60.