Benjamin Britten (1) – Introduction – Getting To Know Him


 This is an introductory note for those wishing to know a little more about Britten or having reservations. For those familiar with my notes they will know that the musical evaluation on the subject composer is given by Matthew as an integral part of his lectures. My notes are meant to introduce a little background to a composer.

 In the case of Britten most of us have lived through a period when Benjamin Britten was a dominant contemporary figure whom we got to know whilst he was composing and over a period during which he matured. Thirty six years have gone by since his death and time has stood still. The arrival now of his centenary year gives us an opportunity to review this very individual composer observed from the perspective of the future he did not live to see. For listeners under 45, Benjamin Britten may seem a historical figure like Elgar might have been for some of us older ones. We too, however, instead of looking at a contemporary whose lifestyle and whose artistic novelties formed the basis at the time of our likes and dislikes and prejudices, should be able now to look back from a new century and take a fresh, more detached view of the artist himself, warts and all, accept that not everything he wrote necessarily reflected his genius but that genius there most certainly was when there was. Britten, man and composer, is often perceived as a difficult subject for some to come to terms with but very often for very different reasons. So let me say straight away there is nothing unusual , if such be the case, in being a doubter and not always coming to terms with Britten. I have for instance heard people express an antipathy to Britten because they do not like the singing of Peter Pears and this is not confined to the non-cognoscenti. It is frequently expressed by professional musicians and singers. Thus the association of two people, bonded both in their personal lives and in musical partnership, has itself affected some peoples’ critical judgement of the music itself. Possibly no other performer has had so much written for him as did Pears by Britten but in the end it is the music which counts and has to survive on its own to be judged and performed in its own right. I am hoping that this can be a series about Britten primarily without Pears. You cannot have Hamlet without the Prince but you can have Hamlet without Laertes. Music should not need to rely on the one specialist recreator. Performers die, composers die, but it is the latter who leave us a legacy. The emergence of new interpreters can act as an actual release from earlier shackles.

 I stated above that difficulties arise from different reasons. Another aspect of Britten is that what he produced never followed conventional expectations. For most of us, our musical awareness is likely to have been triggered by the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra written in 1946 for a short film “The Instruments of the Orchestra” introduced by Malcolm Sargent. The obvious mastery of orchestral forces prompted the conventional question “When is this bloke going to write his first symphony?”. The anticipation of such an event matched that of the wait for Brahms’s first or the Walton No 1 which in both cases emerged to be followed by No 2. I can remember the question being posed on the Radio Programme “Music Magazine” for Britten’s fortieth birthday in 1953 when it was suggested that Britten was not concerned with the academic concept of symphonic form, overlooking the fact that his Sinfonia da Requiem is as great a symphony and as cataclysmic as, say, Vaughan Williams fourth written five years before. Anyway there we have for starters the orchestral Britten. Orchestral glitter was to find its way into Peter Grimes with the Sea Interludes and Passacaglia. This was the side of the coin of powerful orchestral forces which, in retrospect dominated Britten’s last years of pre-war England followed by the American years from summer 1939 till the return to England in 1942. They include the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the Sinfonia da Requiem, an American Overture (the nearest that Britten ever sounded to Copland), the Young Persons Guide and on to Grimes. In this period he also wrote but gave no opus number to Young Apollo, a mantra for a composer seen favourably by some as bursting with confidence, and for others more disparaging, as a show off.

 Before that he had had a growing reputation in the 1930’s with various works containing brilliant scoring for strings. In 1933 he fondly wrote the Simple Symphony, based on compositions from when he was eleven. Included in this group are the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) with which Britten burst on to the international scene at the Salzburg Festival followed later in the war by its lesser known sequel, the Prelude and Fugue for 18 string players. I am fortunate enough to recall my first Karajan concert in 1955 when he chose the Frank Bridge Variations as the first English composition he conducted. The disc today is truly wonderful. The 1930’s had also seen the partnership which emerged between Britten and W H Auden. This produced On This Island, five poems with piano accompaniment, Our Hunting Fathers, a cycle of songs with stylised orchestral accompaniment and Ballad of Heroes performed under Constant Lambert in February 1939 and dedicated to the heroes of the Spanish Civil War. It was, amongst other reasons, to follow Auden that Britten left for America in the summer of that year.

 Then there are those whose preference is for opera. For them it is the Britten whose stage works come first and foremost, the first British composer of modern times who was a composer of operas as opposed to a composer who had a go at turning his hand to an opera. Apart from Gilbert and Sullivan there is little evidence of an opera tradition in England as there was in France or Italy. After Purcell there was of course Handel who was a naturalised Brit and following him there was Thomas Arne of Rule Britannia fame who wrote seven operas. You won’t see any of them at Covent Garden. Stanford wrote four but none is played or recorded and it will need some archaeological work to unearth them. Elgar never tried his hand. It is therefore a little astonishing that Britten would create a greater operatic output than, say, Puccini, who, apart from the odd mass wrote little else. For many, including myself, Peter Grimes is a musical experience never to be missed although I cannot always say that of the productions I have seen. This great opera which exudes the aroma of East Anglia and the North Sea was first performed for the re-opening of Sadlers Wells after the war. Actually, it was not his first as he had written a two act operetta, Paul Bunyan, in America in 1941 to a libretto by Auden and which, truth to say, was not a success. Each opera he was later to write was always individual, quite distinct from its predecessors both in concept and as a genre within opera itself. It would have seen natural to have followed the success of Grimes with another conventional large scale opera . Instead Britten turned to a form of travelling opera, soloists accompanied by a chamber group, in fact chamber opera which he himself largely invented for the English Opera Group. It was to grand opera what chamber music was to the symphony. The first of these, The Rape of Lucretia, owes something to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, not that Stravinsky seemed to be a particular favourite of Britten. It was not so much the music as the static nature of its neo-classicism with soloists accompanied by an instrumental ensemble. It may have left a number of its audience somewhat challenged but I challenge anyone to produce anything more rarely beautiful than the sequence of goodnights at the end of the first act. If you haven’t heard it then do give it a listen. There is a recording by Richard Hickox (not for once recorded in Blackheath Halls but at Goldsmiths College not that far away).

 For others Britten is the composer primarily for song cycles written frequently but by no means always for Peter Pears, sometimes accompanied by piano, very often by a string orchestra. Songs and song cycles are going to be more esoteric. They are not everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s face it there are enough people who know Schubert’s unfinished symphony backwards and who have listened umpteen times to the Death and the Maiden quartet at Blackheath Concert Halls, yet who do not take to lieder any more than to lapsang souchong. Britten’s earliest venture in this field was before he reached fifteen when as a school boy he wrote Quatre Chansons Francais, settings of poems by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine. One wonders what his class mates, struggling along with La Plume de Ma Tante, made of that! Quatre Chansons was to be a foretaste for “Les Illumnations” written in 1939, a setting of poems by Rimbaud for high voice and strings. He had already had a go in Italian as well with his setting of seven sonnets by Michaelangelo to song, the first work written by him for Peter Pears but not to my knowledge ever attempted by Pavarotti.

 It is however to English poetry that he would turn. Best known in this field is the Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings, written on his return to England from America in 1942 for Pears and Dennis Brain. Britten here displays his skill of collating a themed anthology of verse and setting it to his tune. He was the consummate troubadour. He finds music in every word to bring out the poetry and inspiration in every word to create the music. There is the Spring Symphony ending with “Sumer is icumen in”, his Nocturne where each song is accompanied by a different obligato solo instrument and Winter Words, a setting of Hardy but arguably his finest achievement was with the poems of Wilfred Owen accompanied by chamber orchestra being interspersed with the Mass with chorus, children’s chorus and full orchestra in the War Requiem written for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962.

 Mention of children is another aspect of Britten which some find difficult and others a sheer delight. There is the depiction of innocence in his compositions involving children. They are not only present as we have seen in the War Requiem and the Spring Symphony but to be found in his operas, most famously Noye’s Fludde written for children performers and also the Little Sweep, part of “Let’s Make an Opera”. The innocence of children is a theme which attracted him to the last with Death In Venice. However in his chamber opera, “The Turn of the Screw” based on a novella by Henry James, the innocence of the two children, Miles and Flora, becomes diabolically corrupted but the corruption is by adults or rather the ghosts of adults. Apart from his characterisation of children, there are a host of church works written for the voices of children, typically the Missa Brevis written for George Malcolm and the choristers of Westminster Cathedral, the Ceremony of Carols and St Nicholas splashing in his bath.

 We then come to another aspect of song by Britten. Not the Britten of poetry but the Britten of folksong settings. This is a completely esoteric side of his output for some whilst for others he is on a par with Schubert. For folk music enthusiasts, Pears and Britten together with Kathleen Ferrier – she died in 1953 – had the ability to make folk music entertaining. Who can forget their rendering of the Foggy Foggy Dew and its naughty ending, much in the same spirit as Dudley Moore entertained us, indeed had us rolling in the aisles, in Beyond the Fringe in 1960, with “Little Miss Britten”, an uproarious send up of Peter Pears singing Little Miss Muffett.  

 Vocal works were not limited to folksong or poetry settings but also to a very special Britten creation, the canticles, of which there were five. As with nearly everything by Britten, these works are never a repetition of a previous success. One only has to see the difference in voices and instrumentation to see this.

 Canticle I : It is scored for high voice and piano and entitled “My beloved is mine and I am his”. It is based on a poem taken from The Song of Solomon and written as a memorial for Dick Sheppard, former vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Canticle II “Abraham and Isaac” was written in 1952 for Peter Pears, Kathleen Ferrier and Britten to perform and is based on the Abraham and Isaac story as depicted in the Chester Mystery Plays. Britten was to quote this work in his War Requiem. By chance one of Owen’s poems was based on the Abraham and Isaac story but where Isaac represents the seed of Europe who were to be wiped out one by one

Canticle III: Still falls the rain written for voice, horn, and piano in 1954 is based on an Edith Sitwell poem “The Canticle of the Rose.” Dennis Brain, the horn soloist was tragically killed in a road accident in 1957.

Canticle IV: was written in 1971 for countertenor, tenor and baritone, with text based on the T. S. Eliot poem “The Journey of the Magi.”

Canticle V entitled “The Death of Saint Narcissus” was written in 1974 for tenor and harp for performance by Peter Pears and Osian Ellis.

 Britten also set about a form of cross fertilization between his chamber operas and the canticles with three parables for church performance. Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968).  Curlew River was inspired by a noh play Britten saw in Japan which he adapted so as to place in a mediaeval church setting in the Fens. He was particularly fond of it but some may not find its stylisation immediately easy listening. The Burning Fiery Furnace is based on the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar and the three Israelites, Ananias, Misael and Asarias, better known if you know your spirituals as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Anyway because of their refusal to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold, they got thrown into a furnace. What else would you expect? However, God, who is about as neutral as a Chelsea football supporter, saves them from death, as the voice of an angel joins the Israelites in a ‘Benedicte’. As a presentation these parables owe something to the masques of Thomas Arne

 Also written for church performance and much more fun is Noye’s Fludde to be performed and played by children singing “Kyrie Eleison”, usually with Estuary accents, as the animals enter two by two. Here I can give this worke the plugge it deserves as it is being performed in ye Blackheath Concert Halls in February. Watch out.

 When it comes to chamber music you won’t find as you might expect a cycle of piano sonatas, trios or whatever except strangely he produced five string quartets. Two of these written when he was fifteen and seventeen are juvenilia without opus numbers. In the case of Britten one must not confuse juvenilia with being juvenile! The two great quartets are those officially numbered two and three. Number two was composed following a tour playing with Yehudi Menuhin at concentration camps in 1945 and includes a chaconny based on a theme of Purcell. His last, the third, composed in Venice included references to “Death in Venice”. It was written for the Amadeus Quartet shortly before his own death but not first played till afterwards. Particularly fruitful was his meeting Rostropovitch. Despite the fact that neither could speak the language of the other they had an intense musical communication, a fusion which gave birth not only to the cello symphony but also to three unaccompanied cello suites and a cello sonata, as well as to the best Schubert Arpeggione on disc.

 One can now see how diverse is the spread of Britten’s extensive output that it is little wonder not everything can appeal to everyone in the same way. Let’s face it, there have been enough people who know every note of Beethoven’s symphonies but who nonetheless remain totally non-plussed by his late quartets. Much the same can be said of Shostakovitch, another fellow spirit close to Britten’s heart, whose symphonies alone are variable in quality and appeal, to say the least. We take on board those of them that we like and give a miss to those that aren’t so much a hit but which perhaps we later come round to accepting more readily. If you don’t happen to rank yourself as an all round Britten aficionado, you can regard him then as a pick and choose composer.

 The variable nature of Britten’s output has been said by some to have been dictated by whatever were the commissions he received. But then most composers relish receiving a commission if they can get one. Ask Matthew! Britten was showered with them, from Boyd Neel who needed a work in six weeks for his orchestra for the Salzburg Festival of 1937 and which resulted in the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. We owe Peter Grimes to a commission from the philanthropic conductor Sergei Koussevitsky in Boston but the idea for the opera was always that of Britten after having read an article by E M Forster on George Crabbe and his poem “The Borough”. Not all patrons were wealthy. Rejoice in the Lamb for four solo singers, male chorus and organ is a particular favourite of mine. It was the outcome of a commission in 1943 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his church by the vicar of St Matthews, Northampton. These are settings of poems written by Christopher Smart in the mid-eighteenth century in a lunatic asylum to which he was rightly or wrongly committed. The poems express the wonder of God through the eyes of the poet, his cat Jeffery, a mouse and the flowers. Exactly the sort of thing to appeal to Britten.

 The 22nd November 1963 was the fiftieth birthday of Benjamin Britten and I drove home that day in order to watch a celebration on TV with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky. When I put on the radio there was grim news coming through from Dallas of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Later after the long extended news bulletins and tributes I watched the delayed Britten programme in bleak black and white. So I can say exactly what I was doing the night Kennedy was killed. Rozhdestvensky, who always looked miserable anyway, then introduced the Sinfonia da Requiem which I had never heard before. It starts with thunderclaps on the timpani and bass drum and is followed by a ghostly harrowing slow death march. It then rises to its cataclysmic climax. I can never now hear that work without recalling Kennedy’s death. It is the force of association which music has the power to transmit.

 I mention this because there are a number who express a reservation about Britten by an association they have made. For some he, and thus his music, remains tainted by his sexuality which clearly gets in their way. I think it fair to say that this is likely to come, not thank goodness from younger people, but from men, particularly of my generation, to whom I would say “Get over it”. Today the relationship between Britten and Pears would not come under question and younger people would not lift an eyebrow. In their time, Britten and Pears risked prosecution under the law and there would have been many who would have had them consigned to the same treatment as Oscar Wilde. Yet would anyone reject the music of Tchaikovsky because he was also homosexual and promiscuously so. Britten’s homosexuality also gets linked to his music written for boy singers and the inference is that his relationship with them might have been sexually questionable. That I doubt. He lived a monogamous life with Pears whilst paedophiles are generally thought to be complete loners. If anything it is the quality of innocence that Britten seeks, at least in his music, to safeguard. None of these adolescent singers has corroborated this suggestion, and I can do no better than quote from this month’s BBC Music Magazine.

 “Today such relationships are often regarded with suspicion. But the actor, David Hemmings, (with whom Britten had a later falling out ) who was the original Miles in The Turn of the Screw in 1954 – and who even then, as he himself put it, was more heterosexual than Ghengis Khan was quick to deflect such thoughts. Britten was not only a father to me, but a friend – and you couldn’t have had a better father, or a better friend. He was generous and kind, and I was very lucky. I loved him dearly – I really did. I absolutely adored him.”

 In the end it does not matter and it really should not concern anybody especially as Britten has been dead for 36 years. What matters is the music he created. Prejudice towards the creator has no relevance as regards his music.

 With Benjamin Britten we have probably the most gifted musician that England has produced, composer par excellence, the most sensitive of performers, the man who conceived a festival for Aldeburgh in contrast to the Edinburgh International, was inspired to build the Maltings, a superb international concert hall in the middle of nowhere and has left all of this as a thriving legacy. One feels his presence pervading the town of Aldeburgh. As to his music, it has a language of its very own. You have to get to know a language to understand it and usually that understanding comes about from familiarity. So, just don’t worry if you need to listen more than just once.