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Aldeburgh Festival (4) Britten, Lutyens, Henze, Simon Bainbridge: Robert Murray, (tenor), Christopher Glynn (piano) Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, 12.6.06 (AO)

Preceded by “Auden the Poet”, a talk by John Fuller

In George Orwell’s satire for Punch, a callow young fellow declares he is a “writer”. “And what do you write about, dear ?” asks his elderly aunt. “One doesn’t write about anything”, sneers the arrogant know-all, “one merely writes”.

W H Auden certainly didn’t think poetry was merely an act of ego. In his erudite talk, John Fuller focussed on Auden’s ideas on poetry and music. For Auden, poetry was a means of expressing thought more deeply than plain prose. Music added to text made it more oblique, though more intense. What John Fuller didn’t say was that it depended on the composer's understanding of the poem. This could have been a great opportunity to investigate settings of Auden, but Britten’s finest settings, such as the amazing Our Hunting Fathers, were allocated elsewhere in the Festival, and nothing by Ned Rorem was included. Nonetheless, Fuller’s talk was a springboard for wider ideas pertaining to the relationship between Auden and Britten, and thus of greater relevance than just song.

For Auden, poetry was about experiencing and making sense of life. Breughel's painted human activity stimulated him more than what he saw as the lovely shallowness of other Old Masters. Reacting against the complacency of Edwardian values, he believed in pro- active learning and experience. Not for him “to suffer dully”, to exist insensate and blind. Thus he went to Weimar Germany, to New York, and to China in the midst of the Japanese invasion. In China, he was essentially an observer, a “war tourist”, unlike Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley or the poet Rewi Alley. Nonetheless, the experience sharpened his cosmopolitan sensibilities. Britten both admired and was discomforted by Auden’s intellect. After their relationship ended, Auden went on to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s Rake's Progress, showcased at this year’s Festival.

On this Island is a commentary on British values. It starts with grandiose “florid music” and ends with a suburban salaryman who suffers dully, “lest he see as it is the loss as major and final, final”. As social critique, it’s less savage than Betjeman calling for “friendly bombs” to fall on Slough and obliterate “tinned beans, tinned minds, tinned breath”. Britten seemed to respond more to fairly straightforward Auden, sometimes misunderstanding Auden’s notoriously illegible handwriting, misreading “if I were Valentino, and Fortune were a broad” as “If I were a valentine and Fortune were abroad”. As John Fuller said, Britten seemed happier when Auden was writing folk-like and funny. But it wasn’t only Britten: Elisabeth Lutyens’ setting of Refugee Blues is unconvincing. The poem may refer to Hitler and affect a vaguely jazz age insolence but Exilmusik it isn’t. It’s nowhere near the savage irony of Hanns Eisler or even Kurt Weill. Auden ended his Sonnets from China with two chilling words, “Nanking, Dachau”. Perhaps Britten did understood, but his sensibility was different. Auden wrote of composers “pouring out forgiveness like a wine” long before the soldiers in  A War Requiem found common ground.

Simon Bainbridge has set eight poems by Primo Levi whose writing has a uncompromising directness born of genuine experience and reflection. Because his settings are for voice and orchestra, Bainbridge is able to develop his ideas on the poems more widely, as it should be, for Levi’s contemplations are on the very nature of suffering: ultimately, the poet himself could not cope spiritually with the enormity of horror. Auden’s Orpheus, Bainbridge’s commission for this Festival, poses the question “what does the song hope for?” Bainbridge makes a predictable long drawn out “ooo” on the final line, “what will the dance do ?”, But the dry, almost mechanical piano part seems to express more pessimism than the words alone convey. Full credit to Murray for learning the song at such short notice after the scheduled singer, Andrew Kennedy, could not make it.

For whatever reason, two of the Henze Auden settings were dropped which was a pity as they are among the most singular Auden settings of all. Henze was an Aldeburgh fixture for many years, and was greatly influenced by its values. Fortunately, Murray sang the most beautiful song of them all, Lay your sleeping head, my love. In this, Henze negotiates the tricky syntax of Auden’s verse, while creating a song of delicate tenderness, capturing even the subtle undercurrent of imminent doom.




Anne Ozorio


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)