One of the most grown-up review sites around
One of the most grown-up review sites around

Search MusicWeb Here


International mailing

Up to 40% off

  Founder: Len Mullenger




Reflections of a Music Publisher



It is, of course, not true that all music written today is dodecaphonic, serial, electronic or otherwise new, committed to a future still unknown even to the prophets. The composers of the years between the wars who did not subscribe to any particular 'school' have had their successors, although their number has diminished and their music seems more traditional to us than Ravel's or Stravinsky's sounded thirty or forty years ago, when the Viennese School was isolated from the main stream.

It would be difficult to think of any names of traditional composers in Germany, France or Italy who have come to the fore since the Second World War, although Hans Werner Henze has shown some tendency to return to more traditional ways of composing and he, at least, has enjoyed a measure of success. The leading American composers whose reputation and works have reached beyond the United States, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, belong to the generation which, in its decisive years, was not confronted with any decision. In particular Copland, the pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, deliberately avoided any involvement in Schoenberg's teaching.

Among those who were still young at the end of the Second World War Benjamin Britten stands head and shoulders above the rest. One would like to believe that, in the face of all the innovators, he would vindicate all that is 'traditional' and dear in music-inspiration, expression, melody. His music is what music has been in the last two hundred years, save only for the fashionable garment of clashing dissonances. This does not please the avant-gardistes; nor does it please them that Britten, of all the composers of his age-group, is the only one whose successes with the public compare with those of the Golden Age; the only one who can instil a large audience of listeners, erudite and simple alike, with enthusiasm; the only one whose music has penetrated to the consciousness of the people. These are facts which the biased and unbiased can check and verify. Never before (with the possible exception of Dunstable, though not Purcell) has England produced a composer of similar stature, although William Walton and Michael Tippett have established the reputation of English music more surely even than Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Such quick and general success as Britten's music has achieved is all the more conspicuous at a time when musical successes are far rarer than they were even a generation ago; and this has aroused opposition and suspicion. It was, and perhaps still is, said in certain circles that the ruthless propaganda of his publisher led to a gross over-estimation of Britten's music. But propaganda can give no more than initial impetus. It can exaggerate a first success, but it cannot maintain it. Britten has contributed at least a dozen symphonic works to the concert repertoire which are still being given hundreds of performances annually around the world, after more than twenty years. This is a long time. Works of such staying power cannot be cheap entertainment, of which one soon tires; nor can they be fakes, which are soon discovered. No sales promotion can achieve this. And since Britten ignores the problems and currents of 'new' music, it is not surprising that his more ambitious rivals feel bitter about his successes. 'Epigones,' writes Boulez, with an unmistakable pointer at Britten, 'are, as far as I am concerned, definitely written off.' But not so the public. Britten's music has once again achieved something which great masters before him fulfilled, and which today is the source of great argument and of obscure programme notes-namely, to move, to excite, to uplift and, above all, to give pleasure.

It follows almost naturally from the character of Britten's music that his way of writing is reminiscent of former and happier times when inspiration was the sole creative stimulus. In his earlier years Britten's application was truly phenomenal. One has only to look at the dates of the first performances of his operas in order to appreciate this. Peter Grimes was first performed on 7 June 1945. The Rape of Lucretia on 12 July 1946, Albert Herring on 20 June 1947, The Beggars' Opera on 24 May 1948. There were some major works written in between, such as the second string quartet, 'Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell' ('The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra') and 'Saint Nicholas'. Although the purely manual work of writing a score for twelve or thirteen players is less than that involved in a full orchestral score it is still prodigious to conceive and complete a full-length opera in eight or nine months. My publishing house-and I myself-were often suspected of driving Britten into such hectic activity. But Britten was driven by an overwhelming urge, and it was, if anything, an embarrassment for his publisher that time and again a new opera was performed before its predecessor had had a chance to make its way in the world. 

There is something Mozartian in Britten's method of working, in its speed and in his unwillingness or inability to alter what he has finished. Of fifty-four works in twenty years only four were later revised, and even these revisions are somewhat superficial although two of his operas, Billy Budd and Gloriana, might have benefited from the kind of rethinking that Beethoven devoted to Leonora. Nor would Britten condone those cuts or alterations that are almost invariably inflicted upon operas at the hands of conductors and producers.

A discussion about Billy Budd with Victor de Sabata at the Hyde Park Hotel in London stands out in my memory. De Sabata was then the chief conductor of La Scala, which had secured the right of first performance of the opera on the Continent. After studying the score he wanted to be free to make such cuts and changes as he thought would benefit the work. I could not authorize this, but suggested a discussion with Britten, and the three of us met at lunch. De Sabata began in his most Italian manner. Making use of great gestures to fill the gaps in his English vocabulary he declared that for him Billy Budd was the most important dramatic work since Tristan (which was an unwise thing to say because Britten hates all Wagner). Unperturbed by Britten's apparent discomfort, de Sabata continued to explain the difference between the English and the Italian public, the latter being much more experienced and much quicker, and tending to become impatient when told the same thing twice. All of which Britten disliked no less than the comparison with Tristan.

As de Sabata did not seem to be coming to the point I reminded him that he wanted to make certain suggestions. 'Oh yes,' he said and opened the vocal score, 'this aria comes too late.' 'You mean,' I asked, 'that it should come earlier on?' 'No, no,' de Sabata replied, 'it must be left out.' That was enough for Britten, and he departed somewhat abruptly. I had to release the Scala from its contract, and it substituted Gloriana for Billy Budd. But Gloriana, then no more than an idea in Britten's mind, also failed eventually to find favour with de Sabata, and was never performed in Milan.

Later Britten became more self-critical, writing more slowly and examining what he had written more closely. A Midsummer Night's Dream and the War Requiem were more thoroughly revised between the first performance and the printed score than any other earlier work.

Although Britten is no innovator he has perhaps perfected one existing form: the 'chamber opera', the opera which is full-scale on stage but small-scale in the pit. The idea did not arise from purely artistic considerations. The Sadlers Wells Opera, during and immediately after the Second World War the only opera-house in London (or in the entire British Isles), had given the sensationally successful first performance of Peter Grimes, but the attitude of the administrators was not what one would have expected. Before the performance they were rather sceptical. When I asked for thirty complimentary tickets for the foreign Press they refused. 'We have had English operas here before,' they said, 'and this time it will be as it has always been: four performances, that will be all.' I had to buy the tickets. The subsequent success, an artistic and box-office success such as the Sadlers Wells Opera had never had before, strangely enough failed to change their unfriendly attitude, and this led to disagreements with the enthusiastic central figures of the first performance: Peter Pears, the first Grimes, Joan Cross, the first Ellen Orford, and Eric Crozier, the producer.

The outcome of this was the foundation of the English Opera Group, where necessity and virtue became almost indistinguishable. Some of Britten's friends, and Britten himself, believed that chamber opera was the whole future of opera, a belief apparently supported by the fact that in Germany, the fairyland of opera, most of the old opera-houses lay in ruins and were not expected to be rebuilt to their former size. It was, alas, an optimistic view. No opera-house could carry on without its traditional repertoire of 'grand' opera, without Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Richard Strauss, and the newly rebuilt German opera-houses were without exception larger than the old ones; a fact which was prompted by economic considerations no less than by those of repertoire. Chamber opera has in consequence remained somewhat exotic, outside the main stream of operatic life. There is also a purely artistic reason: opera is an 'arte rappresentativa', a necessarily large canvas which cannot very well be painted in water-colours. However, Britten has contributed the most accomplished works to this genre and if they have not enriched the general operatic literature to the extent that their musical excellence would merit this is due to a misjudgement of the conditions in which opera-houses work and exist.

There is one more point in Britten's activity which is reminiscent of the practice of former times: he seeks and needs live contact with his public, as pianist and as conductor. There is nothing theoretical or secluded in his art or in his approach to it. Everything is alive and present-as it used to be before intellect erected a high wall between itself and the dreamworld of the arts. Yet in his private life Britten is happy only in the small circle of his chosen friends.

One would like to be fortified in one's belief that the enormous world-wide success of Britten's 'traditional' music conclusively proves that the new tendencies which rob music of its timehonoured purpose are no more than a passing storm. The fact remains none the less that Britten is the only truly successful paladin of tradition. None of the other traditionalists of his agegroup or of the younger generation have achieved anything comparable. He certainly has imitators, as Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok had, but that imitation which distinguishes the true epigone is appreciated by neither the experts nor the public. It seems that mere talent can find little of that satisfaction in the traditional way of writing music that it certainly could when what today is traditional was new. Every epoch had its minor masters and the minor masters had their merits: Telemann next to Johann Sebastian Bach, Christian Bach next to Mozart. But today, when 'tradition' is in obvious difficulties, nothing less than true genius is required to find what gold is left in the abandoned mines.

Britten is indeed a very solitary figure in contemporary music, and it would be difficult to find another period of European music when the public success of one man stood out so conspicuously as his does today. As the publisher of the greater part of his works to date I am speaking with facts and figures in my mind and not from a vague assessment. Such solitude and lack of convincing succession should make the most determined conservatives think. Is this that rare link which discovers new ways without losing the old ones? Britten's music lives not in the centre but at the very periphery of the music with which my generation has grown up. It is melodic yet dissonant, tonal yet with innumerable trespasses on traditional harmony. It has all the twilight qualities of the sunset music of the masters between the wars. But its spirit is the spirit of music at its most moving and endearing. It has a more hazardous existence than its general acclaim would suggest. Its success is the success enjoyed by music in former times: feeling and melody and- sometimes-sheer entertainment of a high order, all the things of which new music wishes not to be reminded. But it is a sign of how extreme and exposed his music is that, even with his vivid invention, mere routine seldom produces a satisfactory result. In short, it can degrade into a mere mannerism what formerly was the general style of the art of music.

This is no less apparent in the later works of Shostakovitch, who, though a few years older than Britten, is his only rival in the domain of traditional music. Listening to his Cello Concerto, to his Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies, one gets the impression of a certain perplexity which seems to indicate the end of the road.

How was it so once upon a time? Classical Greek art accumulated a treasure of artistic experience which for nearly seven hundred years provided the Western world with works of art. Twenty generations had to do no more than repeat, rethink and re-create. But even after so long a period of security the day had to come when the procession of expressionless saints on the walls of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna was more satisfactory than all the beauty, all the naturalness and all the accomplishment of the great masters of the past. And so one wonders whether with Benjamin Britten this 'old' music is celebrating its farewell: beautiful, moving and melancholy.



Return to Index