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November 8, 2012

Rejoice in the work of Benjamin Britten

“Jubilate Agno,” the Latin title of a long 18th-century poem by Christopher Smart, means “Rejoice in the Lamb.”

The meaning of the poem isn’t always so clear, which isn’t surprising, given that Smart was in a madhouse when he wrote it. But the poem’s religious intensity is unmistakable and drew 20th-century English composer Benjamin Britten to base a work of choral music on some of its lines.

“It’s very lively. It’s not an easy piece to sing,” said Paul Madore, conductor of Salem’s Paul Madore Chorale, which will perform “Jubilate Agno” and two other works by Britten at a concert this Sunday in Beverly.

“It’s actually kind of funny — the poetry is almost nonsensical,” he said.

The poem includes a hymn of praise to the poet’s cat, Jeoffry, and a mystical interpretation of the alphabet, among other unusual exercises.

Britten, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in 2013, composed work that ranges from popular and appealing to complex and experimental. The three pieces in the Madore Chorale’s concert are some of his more accessible works, Madore said. Along with “Jubilate Agno,” which was written in 1943, the chorus will sing “A Ceremony of Carols” from 1942.

“‘A Ceremony of Carols’ is more of a traditional type of piece,” Madore said. “It’s intended as an evensong in the Anglican Church. It’s basically Old English carols.”

The lyrics are occasionally in Latin, but more often in English, as that language was spoken in the early Middle Ages.

“We sing ‘welcome yule,’ but pronounce it wolcum yole,” Madore said.

Britten, who died in 1976 and was a friend of English poet W.H. Auden, often used literary texts for his compositions. Two of the carols are based on poems by 16th-century poet Robert Southwell, who was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1970.

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