Abraham and Isaac , 1967

Sidney Nolan, Abraham and Isaac, 1967, mixed media, 50.2 x 74.3cm, gift from the artist to Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in 1968 ©Sidney Nolan Trust

Sarah Bardwell is the General Director of the Britten-Pears Foundation.

“About a year ago I was at a concert in Britten’s library at the Red House in Aldeburgh, his home with his partner Peter Pears during the middle of the 20th century. The concert programme included Canticle II which Britten wrote in 1952. It was not a piece that I knew but hearing it for the first time in Britten and Pears’ own library, sung by two young, passionate singers, accompanied on Britten’s Steinway piano was one of those musical moments that will stay with me forever.

At the opening of the canticle Britten uses the two voices, singing in rhythmic unison, to create the voice of God talking to Abraham. It is a breath-taking effect and the impact is spine chilling not least as God is asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son. I was so taken with the piece that I wanted to find out more and was delighted to discover that Britten owned the work Nolan had painted after Canticle II.

The painting, currently in store in the Britten-Pears Foundation archive based at the Red House, has vivid colours that are as memorable as the music. The picture, with Uluru as a backdrop, depicts a naked, bearded Abraham seated beside his son Isaac. Alongside them is a goat or small four legged animal. Given the glorious colours it is perhaps the moment that God has declared that the sacrifice does not need to go ahead and Abraham appears to have noticed the animal that will be the substitute sacrifice. In the canticle Britten marks this same moment by repeating the technique he used at the beginning for the voice of God, two voices in unison. When this musical theme reappears it becomes less chilling and more spine tingling.

These two works of art enhance and complement each other perfectly. To me, they have now become inextricably linked. I cannot see the painting without humming the tune nor hear the tune without imagining the painting.”

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