February 08, 2007

Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op. 51

from Benjamin Britten: The Five Canticles & 3 Purcell Realisations
performed by Anthony Rolfe Johnson et al.
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Written in 1952, Britten adapted text from medieval language of the Chester Miracle Plays rather than the authorized version of Bible. During this canticle, Britten portrays the most dramatic moment in the life of Abraham as recounted in Genesis 22, the binding and near sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac in obedience to God.

During this two-person opera, one singer assumes the role of Abraham while the other takes that of Isaac. Through the homophony of the two singers, God's voice emerges as if it were a third solo singer. They act out the ancient story: the father taking his son to Mount Moriah, building an altar where Abraham binds Isaac and after heartbreaking farewells, raises his knife to slay him before God intervenes at the moment of sacrifice:

GOD: Abraham, my servant, Abraham,
Take Isaac, thy son by name,
That thou lovest the best of all,
And in sacrifice offer him to me
Upon that hill there besides thee.

Abraham, I will that so it be,
For aught that may befall.

Abraham: My Lord, to Thee is mine intent
Ever to be obedient.
That son that Thou to me hast sent
Offer I will to Thee.
Thy bidding done shall be.

Here Abraham, turning to his son Isaac, saith:

Make thee ready, my dear darling,
For we must do a little thing.
This woode do on thy back it bring,
We may no longer abide.
A sword and fire that I will take,
For sacrifice behoves me to make;
God's bidding will I not forsake,
But ever obedient be.

Here Isaac speaketh to his father, and taketh a bundle of sticks and beareth after his father, and saith:

Isaac: Father, I am all ready
To do your bidding most meekely,
And to bear this wood full bayn am I,
As you commanded me.

Here they both go to the place to do sacrifice:

Abraham: Now, Isaac son, go we our way
To yonder mount if that we may.

Isaac: My dear father, I will essay
To follow you full fain.

Abraham being minded to slay his son Isaac, lifts up his hands, and saith the following:

Abraham: O! My heart will break in three,
To hear thy words I have pitye;
As Thou wilt, Lord, so must it be,
To Thee I will be bayn.
Lay down thy faggot, my own son dear.

Isaac: All ready father, lo, it is here.
But why make you such heavy cheer?
Are you anything adread?

Abraham: Ah! Dear God! That me is woe!

Isaac: Father, if it be your will,
Where is the beast that we shall kill?

Abraham: Thereof, son, is none upon this hill.

Isaac: Father, I am full sore affeared
To see you bear that drawne sword.

Abraham: Isaac, son, peace, I pray thee,
Thou breakest my heart in three.

Isaac: I pray you, father, layn nothing from me,
But tell me what you think.

Abraham: Ah! Isaac, Isaac, I must thee kill!

Isaac: Alas! Father, is that your will,
Your owne child for to spill
Upon this hilles brink?
If I have trespassed in any degree
With a yard you may beat me;
Put up your sword, if your will be,
For I am but a child.
Would God my mother were here with me!
She would kneel down upon her knee,
Praying you, father, if it may be,
For to save my life.

Abraham: O Isaac, son, to thee I say
God hath commanded me today
Sacrifice, this is no nay,
To make of thy bodye.

Isaac: Is it God's will I shall be slain?

Abraham: Yea, son, it is not for to layn.

Here Isaac asketh his father's blessing on his knees, and saith:

Isaac: Father, seeing you mustë needs do so,
Let it pass lightly and over go;
Kneeling on my knees two,
Your blessing on me spread.

Abraham: My blessing, dear son, give I thee
And thy mother's with heart free.
The blessing of the Trinity,
My dear Son, on thee light.

Here Isaac riseth and cometh to his father, and he taketh him, and bindeth and layeth him upon the altar to sacrifice him, and saith:

Abraham: Come hither, my child thou art so sweet,
Thou must be bound both hands and feet.

Isaac: Father, do with me as you will,
I must obey, and that is skill,
Godës commandment to fulfil,
For needs so it must be.

Abraham: Isaac, Isaac, blessed must thou be.

Isaac: Father, greet well my brethren ying,
And pray my mother of her blessing,
I come no more under her wing,
Farewell for ever and aye.

Abraham: Farewell, my sweetë son of grace!

Here Abraham doth kiss his son Isaac, and binds a kerchief about his head.

Isaac: I pray you, father, turn down my face,
For I am sore adread.

Abraham: Lord, full loth were I him to kill!

Isaac: Ah, mercy, father, why tarry you so?

Abraham: Jesu! On me have pity,
That I have most in mind.

Isaac: Now, father, I see that I shall die:
Almighty God in majesty!
My soul I offer unto Thee!

Abraham: To do this deed I am sorrye.

here let Abraham make a sign as tho' he would cut off his son Isaac's head with his sword; then…

GOD: Abraham, my servant dear,
Lay not thy sword in no manner
On Isaac, thy dear darling.
For thou dreadest me, well wot I,
That of thy son has no mercy,
To fulfil my bidding.

Abraham: Ah, Lord of heaven and King of bliss,
Thy bidding shall be done, i-wiss!
A hornëd wether here I see,
Among the briars tied is he,
To Thee offered shall he be
Anon right in this place.

Then let Abraham take the lamb and kill him.

Abraham: Sacrifice here sent me is,
And all, Lord, through Thy grace.

envoi: Such obedience grant us, O Lord!
Ever to Thy most holy word.
That in the same we may accord
As this Abraham was bayn;
And then altogether shall we
That worthy King in heaven see,
And dwell with Him in great glorye
For ever and ever. Amen.

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is a journalist and author of several books, including Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.

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