Britten's Journey of the Magi

By Laura Carlo

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Jan. 5

The New Year’s holiday has come and gone and 2011 is launched... but remember, people are still celebrating Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas end this coming Thursday, January 6th, with what some call “Little Christmas,” or the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the three Eastern kings/wise men arrived at the manger from their long travels following a star and brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. Gian Carlo Menotti wrote an opera about the event, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Ottorino Resphighi included it in his Botticelli Triptych, interpreting the Sandro Botticelli painting, "Adoration of the Magi," in music.

As I do just about every year, I’ll have the Respighi piece, familiar to many of you, on Thursday morning's program.  And my colleague, Brian McCreath, will have Andre Caplet's Epiphanie for cello and orchestra in the afternoon.  Another rarely heard piece on the subject is Benjamin Britten’s Canticle IV, Op. 86, titled “Journey of the Magi.”  Britten wrote the music to a poem of that title by T.S. Eliot, for three voices (counter-tenor, tenor and baritone) and piano, and I'll also have that for you on Thursday morning.

I was stunned when I discovered Eliot’s poem in college. When I was growing up the only part of that story I heard teachers and clergy tell was that these three learned men followed a star in the sky and came to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Mother and Child.  T.S. Eliot’s poem, however, doesn’t focus on the arrival of the Three Kings, but rather, focuses on how long and hard the journey must have been for them and that once they arrived there, they realized that the world, as they had known it, would be forever changed.  In other words, while there was a Birth, there was also a Death of the world they had known. 

When he wrote the poem in 1927 T.S. Eliot had just converted to Christianity and some have suggested the poem described his own journey leaving agnosticism and moving deeper into the Anglican Church teachings.  The poem is not beautiful but it is powerful and profound, and as Eliot’s works do, provide the reader with another window on a subject.  Britten’s composition is not beautiful either - the voice parts clearly describe an alienation and powerlessness over a world that had changed through the convention of an exhausting journey.  It may not be beautiful in the traditional melodic sense, but I am happy to share this musical take on a New Testament event, hoping that in this age of technology flying at us from every angle, in an age when we don’t get a chance to even take a deep breath, this haunting work will provide a little anchorage in which to start the new year.

If you'd like to see the text and even hear T.S. Eliot reading the poem himself, visit The Poetry Archive.

(image:  Star 109 Piscium [Celestia], from Wikimedia Commons)

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