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The Development of Benjamin Britten within Opera by Damian Oxborough

Benjamin Britten is one of England’s most well-known and well-respected composers of serious, classical music. He was also an outstandingly talented pianist who was celebrated for his role as an accompanist to various other musical figures, most famously his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears. His influence has spread far and wide throughout the musical world and has been felt over the years since his career began in the early part of the twentieth century. The reason his name has so often appeared on the lips of musicians and musicologists, both in his lifetime and in the 25 years since his death, has been due to Britten’s style not only being forward thinking and, to some degree, revolutionary, but also because of the sheer volume of his output over the course of his career into the mid 1970s. Britten had composed some hundred works before the end of his childhood years and has, therefore, made some significant impact, throughout his adult life, in many genres of the musical scene, ranging from large scale orchestral and chamber music to operatic and theatrical scores, ballet and religious, choral works . Furthermore, he has been able to find new and interesting means of crossing the boundaries between various musical disciplines that have, until now, been considered quite separate. In this study I will be taking a closer look at the way some of these limits have been traversed with regard to how and why Benjamin Britten’s individual musical voice can be heard to sing through his art, from a technically theoretical stance and as an emotional reaction, with special interest being taken in how he deals with music as a platform for dramatic representation.

Britten was a very eclectic composer in that, as well as looking forward for inspiration and new idealism that would carry his work to a stronger musical and culturally valid position, he would also look around him and into the past in order to make use of some of the more valuable matter already in existence. In his stylistic approach he continued the trend of the composers in the earlier part of the century , and in fact had taken much influence from various well-known figures to help him achieve his desired artistic goals. Although he was essentially a tonal composer, despite his own questioning of this system in his studies and creative writings, he had conducted compositional experiments that adhered to the tendencies and principles of both the ‘schools’ of Mahler and Schoenberg . With experience, and the motivation to write music that could only ever be recognised as that by Benjamin Britten, his use of the tonal system was lucrative because he was able to manipulate the way we understand it, to his own ends, and so to the inevitable benefit of the creation of a successfully dramatic idiom. In this new tonal world, progressions work as much due to their dramatic interrelations as they do diatonically. For example, in the fifth interlude of Britten’s most famed opera, Peter Grimes, we hear a held tonic chord in second inversion (6/4). However, because of the way this sonority is brought to the attention of the audience, even without the benefit of retrospect, we do not hear it as a preparation to a dominant chord (which would, presumably, then go on to resolve to a true, i.e. root-position, tonic) but as a significant musical colour in itself. These individual colours or musical schemes could then be used to represent particular ideas or characters. With the assistance of a reasonably large body of instrumental and vocal forces, it was possible to play these characters and ideas off one another or to compare and contrast them through time to very simply create a discussion of quite complicated social, political and emotional matters with hardly any need of a dialogue. These kinds of techniques date back to the operas of Monteverdi who would use certain key centres to represent emotional tension on the stage. For example, he famously made use of the key of G minor in his opera L’Orpheo to suggest that the current situation be in decline. So, again, we see that much of Britten’s forward-looking methodology naturally derives from the experience of the past. As Kennedy puts it “…he demonstrated again and again that his enviable ability to win his audience at a first hearing was because he could convey the originality of what he was saying in a way that his listeners could relate to their traditional musical experience.” Nevertheless, he was always willing to experiment with unusual and unconventional modes of working, taking his music away from the static and into a new and totally idiosyncratic and very personal realm. His effortless technique and the ‘gift’ of his extraordinary musicality allowed Britten to create a music of highly personal definition. In short, however progressive his music is or is not, Britten was ceaselessly in touch with his audience.

Because Britten was willing to make new uses of older ideas and systems, such as the tonal system of key centres, his musical sonorities were quite different from anything that had been heard before his work was brought to the concert-going public’s attention. As well as technical innovation though, Britten also made an impact on the social relevance and role of music and its context. Because much of his artistic output was new in the way that it impacted on the listeners’ senses , evidently this new music’s social perspective could not remain as the old either. Perhaps because this change was forced by society or perhaps because Britten considered it to be an appropriate and convenient action (which comes down to the same thing), he managed to bring music theatre out of the opera houses and into new climates. Works such as his church parables and his chamber operas crossed the line between religious worship and musical drama. This merge was already partly in progress with Britten’s prolific use of the church modes in his operas, Grimes being based on Lydian progressions that lead to the main theme. In some ways this slide in context was well prepared with the invent of radical new sonorities and therefore, as explained above, a new theatrical environment was inevitable. The concept of bringing operatic style together with religion is not a new thing, of course. England’s adopted baroque composer Georg Frederik Handel had brought about a similar situation with the compositional style of his oratorio The Messiah, first performed in Dublin . This may be so but in the time of Benjamin Britten other contexts were already being established too. One important framework for Britten, if only because he contributed significantly to the field of music for media, was opera written specifically for performance on television, the one he wrote as a commission being Owen Windgrave. He also demonstrated his particular slant on how music was considered by his contemporaries in the opera Let’s Make an Opera. This drama is made up of two acts, the first being a rehearsal of an opera on the stage, and the second being the performance of that opera. So, in Let’s Make an Opera, what the audience is seeing is an opera of an opera, which turns the whole question of musical and dramatic context on it’s head.

This question of an outward performance context was central to how Britten worked, for without an audience who wanted to hear his music, for whatever reason, he would not succeed as a composer. This meant that, on some level, Britten must be able to connect to his listeners and say something new that is both relevant to himself and to their lives and circumstances. After all, opera is not just about putting a spectacle of colour and sound in front of a crowd, and its purpose is not to simply portray a drama of some nondescript kind, but to allow the people involved in the production a chance to have a voice, and for that voice to carry, in one form or another, to those people who participate as audience members. In effect, the entire act of putting on an opera is a two-way process between the audience and the company, for the former, with their social trends and peculiarities, dictate what the opera will be about and the opera puts a slant on that subject content which influences those trends in some way in their development. Of course, the composer and his colleagues are as much a part of the larger society themselves as anyone else, so the matter of theme on which a drama will focus is partly already chosen, for it must touch those involved too. For this reason it was very important for Britten to choose the appropriate subject, verse or writers of either in order to ensure the final production was as relevant to modern society as it could possibly be. He spent much time seeking both the sonority and the emotional and intellectual content of verse as a motivation to his musical sensitivity and creativity. Consequently, Britten was able to embrace a wide gamut of emotions, for these were the very ideas and sensations he was experiencing before even setting pen to paper. He was astoundingly able to portray these emotions and sentimental responses in and through his music making use of his leitmotif ideas. This could be both a general air or atmosphere that Britten was attempting to broadcast to his audience, such as in Grimes where he is making indefinite statements through music about innocence, corruption and creation, or more specifically (as discussed earlier) where certain collections of sounds represent ideas. This is taken one step further in Britten’s operatic works as he begins to use these snippets of phrase structure or harmonic intensity, to draw the audience toward certain conclusions. For example, a sustained leitmotif, of a kind, appears at the opening of Grimes where the woodwind section of the orchestra, cool and hard, always appear on the words of the official, contrasted strongly by the warm, expressivo strings that represent Peter. This contrast returns on numerous occasions with the fairly obvious intention of suggesting to the audience that, despite the action they are seeing on the stage, Peter being accused of the murder of his young apprentice, he is the character who they are meant to identify with, or at least pity. Other motifs that are very significant in the same work include the dominant-seventh chord to which Peter swore his oath (the “storm” chord) which is held and sustained throughout the entire last interlude when the hero / villain of the opera finally gives in to his anguish, and it appears in the passacaglia interlude. A more clearly thematic connection is in the motif that represents the fate of Peter, heard on many occasions when the character’s stance is weakening such as part of the accompaniment figure in the Borough people’s march to Peter’s hut, and finally as his ship sinks and the crowd, ironically, sing “One of these rumours” .

Much more subtle ways of demonstrating a point are constantly employed by Britten in his habitual compositional style. Another example from Peter Grimes, the first English opera to enter and remain within the international repertoire and the work with which Britten established an English operatic idiom, is the way Britten managed to capture the essence of his characters simply in the way their parts are phrased. Peter is a fiercely proud and independent person but is also a deeply insecure individual. His parts have a lyrical flow that would be free if it weren’t for their highly rhythmic nature, as oppose to Ellen’s parts that are, for the most part, rhythmically and harmonically quite simple, her phrases being of unsurprising lengths and of uninterrupted flow. Even when it comes to sections where the characters sing in a larger group, each character keeps his own particular manner of singing according to his general personality or current mood and individual slant on the drama unfolding around him. These techniques Britten employs, putting forward the climate of the whole stage in a way that the audience can easily understand without listening to a word of the libretto, demonstrate his immeasurable gift for musical characterisation. Much of the reason, it has been argued, for Britten’s ability to do this, especially with many of his lead characters, is due to his capacity to identify with the people he creates on stage. Because Benjamin Britten chose the subject content for each of his operas, it is reasonable to suggest that he did so with personal concerns in mind. Peter Grimes is the tale of the goings-on of an English coastal town, and moreover, the harrowing story of an individual who is unfairly judged so harshly by the society around him that he learns to feel only bitterness and hatred for not only those who judge but also those who he would otherwise love, biting the hand that feeds him in the form of Ellen. Britten was able to draw many parallels with his character. Firstly, he always felt at home when the sea was near by, telling one interviewer “I can’t live without it.” More importantly, despite his huge success even within his lifetime, Britten saw himself as rejected by the public at large. He considered himself to be, like Peter, a dreamer and visionary who was at best misunderstood and at worse not tolerated by his audiences and the people who shared his private life. As is well known, Britten was homosexual and a strong believer in the Christian faith. Britten found these two very important factors of his life, understandably, difficult to reconcile. In non-operatic works such as his War Requiem, Britten highlights this connection and conflict between the ultimately traditional side of his nature and belief system, that of Christianity, and the side of him that was altogether against the way society at large judges and rejects its members. The text of his War Requiem is partly taken from the traditional Roman Catholic mass, in Latin, and partly from the writings of Wilfred Owen, another person Britten could very easily identify with. Owen, like Britten, was a pacifist who, unlike Britten, was forced to fight . Whilst serving in the First World War, Owen wrote about his horrific experiences and composed what would become social commentaries on the struggle and injustice of war. Owen, like Grimes, was eventually punished, in a roundabout way, for his stance and was killed on the battlefield shortly before the Great War came to an end.

The next serious opera Benjamin Britten wrote after Grimes was Billy Budd in 1951. This, after a short diversion to the genre of opera buffa with Albert Herring, reverts back to the style of Grimes in both its technical and social nature. As far as forces are concerned, Herring was very economical and was notable for the way Britten looks further back into the musical world’s recent history, quoting the ‘Love Potion’ music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, at the momentrimes in both its technical and social nature. As far as forces are concerned, Herring was very economical and was notable for the way Britten looks further back into the musical world’s recent history, quoting the ‘Love Potion’ music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, at the moment when the main character mistakenly drinks rum rather than lemonade after a practical joke played by one of his friends. Billy Budd uses both a large orchestra and requires large-scale forces for the stage. Described as Britten’s most “challenging” work, this structurally ambitious opera turns its eyes once more to the sea. Britten uses this operatic subject to further discuss the matter of man’s inhumanity to man, the main character, Budd, being falsely accused as Peter Grimes. This accusation leads him to make further errors of judgement, the climax being when he strikes his original accuser and master-of-arms, Cloggart, killing him. The opera is scored entirely for a male cast, allegedly removing the love interest from the equation, but the character Captain Vere demonstrates a great affection for Billy and, tragically, feels he must uphold the law and hang Budd for the murder for the sake of avoiding unrest within the rest of their community. Because the basic outline and emotional transfer is very similar in this opera to that of Peter Grimes, it is clear to see that Britten chose this subject and was so successful in putting forward the sensational intensity, albeit utilised, this time, more as a tool of pure drama than music for music’s sake, because he could relate to the predicament of both Billy Budd and Captain Vere, holding Cloggart up as a symbol of the ills of society. The extent to which Benjamin Britten’s homosexuality has played a part in his gaining of this negative view of the reaction of society to his music and, if they were aware at the time, his private life, is questionable. Both Billy Budd and Peter Grimes are characters who, although not blatantly homosexual, have certain aspects of their personalities interrogated by individuals and a disapproving public. However, the opera Death in Venice (1973) takes these ambiguous revelations one step further. This drama sums up the conflict of innocence and experience as Britten saw it and is the story of a middle-aged, middle class man who develops an all-consuming love for a teenage boy. Certain immediate parallels can be drawn from the evidence of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Benjamin Britten who alleges that Britten was known to have kissed and cuddled the young boys in his choir. Of course, this is mere speculation as, up until his death, the people who were familiar with Britten did not discuss their friend and colleague’s private life. Nevertheless, this opera, written only three years before he died, can be seen as the first non-cryptic demonstration of Britten’s ideas concerning homosexuality generally. It would be easy for us to assume that he wrote this opera with a complete understanding of the way his lead character was feeling; a normal, average man who had secret desires for the one thing it was absolutely not acceptable for him to want, a romantic, sexual affair with a young boy. But the music that Britten writes to accompany these characters seems to have very little bias either way. One possible reason for this is because the composer is fooling his audience into believing that this IS his first true statement about the nature of sexuality in society when infact his previous metaphorical nature is continuing and these characters could, to him, represent totally unrelated ideas. One possible suggestion could be that Britten sees himself as the young boy being seduced by the world around him and specifically the music he writes and puts before a critical audience.

Britten was very able to create an astonishingly accurate scenescape and atmosphere in his operas with more than just the way he wrote lines and accompanying parts for his characters. Some of the most well-known parts of Peter Grimes as so for this very reason. Specifically, four of the six operatic interludes have since entered the regular repertoire at concert halls because of the way they conjure both a general atmosphere and an accurate portrayal of a dramatic scene to come (of which the concert audience will not see, of course). The ‘Sunday Morning’ interlude, for example, is based around the tolling of two horns minor thirds apart and another two on major thirds. This representation allows Britten to paint a picture of the sea, due to the way we associate the sound of horns with fog, and of the church, effectively replacing the bells with this instrument. Structural devices also hold these interludes together, the most notable being the passacaglia where we hear a bass line, which is derived from Peter’s fateful cadence in the ensuing scene, reiterated 38 times on top of which there is a different theme with 10 variations in the other parts these frequently being out of sync with the highly rhythmic passacaglia. This unrelenting motion and repetition leads to the ‘accidental death’ of Peter’s second young apprentice in the operatic version of the interlude, the passacaglia being a precursor to that destiny. In contrast to that, Britten deliberately blocks the large-scale motion of the opera with the sea interlude by forcing upon it a struggle between two tonal centres, those of A major and Eb major, and their modified equivalents. This interlude is, for the sake of the plot, a stereotypical depiction of the sea and a statement of how this great body of water both enriches and endangers the lives of the towns people of Borough, and this is reflected in the struggle between these tonal centres . Other strong structural devices in Britten’s operatic writing style include the orchestral prefaces to all 16 scenes in Turn of the Screw (1954). Like the Grimes interludes, these prefaces comment on the action that has just occurred and give the audience some clue as to what to expect in the following passages. To some extent more importantly, they unify the work in that each preface is based on the key-note of a main theme (referred to as “The Screw”). So in one consideration Britten has brought in both tonal and thematic unity that follow the narrative with a strong enough subconscious hold on the audience that further dramatic and thematic developments are able to occur without breaking up that structure. The opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was totally written and scripted by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, uses quite a different, but equally affective, method of structurally unifying the work. This opera is set on three distinct levels and Britten demonstrates these by using three equally distinct musical soundworlds. The ‘fairyland’ is impressionistic, ‘rustics’ is in an arioso style and the ‘lovers’ contrasts still further.

It has been seen that Benjamin Britten, a master craftsman of many musical genres but most notably his operas and other vocal works, has an impressive ability to carry a narrative and all the emotional and social issues that transpire from it in a collaboration of his technical and intuitive style. Some negative comments that have been made about his style include the idea that, in a maze and multiplicity of musical gestures, the general trend of some of his work gets weakened and even lost. This creates a patchwork effect and so certain point of relief become close to slowing the pace of the drama so much that very little forward motion can be felt at all. Examples of such places include, in Grimes, the rector’s aria “I’ll water my roses”. However, it is felt that Britten is so successful in the way he unifies his works by highlighting conflicts in harmonic clashes on the surface while all the time trends follow from the beginning to the end of his works more than makes up for this slight failing. It must also be noted that, because many of his operatic parts were written with certain performers in mind, for Peter Pears sang many of the lead tenor roles of Britten’s works, considerations of the style of voice and musicianship must have been made during the composition of those parts, leading some of the emphasis on musical characterisation away to take a temporary back-seat.

Damian Oxborough, May 2000

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