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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 


BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976)

© Rob Barnett


SPHERES OF INFLUENCE

1934 saw the appearance of one of his best known and loved orchestral works: the Simple Symphony for strings. Norwich hosted the premiere which no doubt brought back vivid memories of the premieres of the two Bridge works. Influences at work were many and various. Bridge’s influence introduced him to continental voices. He had already met Schoenberg in 1933 and in 1934 he heard Berg’s Wozzeck. Britten’s Phantasy Oboe Quartet was given at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Florence, with Britten attending. Later the same year it was played in London.

FILM MUSIC

The role played by film music in Britten’s development is too easily overlooked. His introduction to this world came with contract and then employed work from the G.P.O. Film Unit. He also had work from Strand Films and the director Paul Rotha. He wrote for the G.P.O. unit music for sixteen films between 1935 and 1939. Two of these scores were written as collaborations with John Foulds (another visionary and inspired British composer affected by music of the East and whose April-England has some echoes of Enter Spring). The most famous of these sixteen scores is the 1936 Night Mail. It was through the medium of these scores that many people came into contact with Britten’s music though in many cases they would not have been terribly conscious of it. This connection was also important because it was through the Film Unit that he met and began collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden (‘a terrific bully’ according to Pears). Auden had been to the same school as Britten. He worked with Auden on Night Mail and another classic Coal Face. His only feature film score dates from 1937: Love From a Stranger and a suite from this was reconstructed in 1995 and premiered at the Barbican, London in a film music concert directed by Carl Davis.

I.S.C.M. AND SPANISH INTERLUDE

His success was such that he was able to sign a publishing contract with Boosey and Hawkes in 1936. This was a year of rich musical experiences. In March he heard a concert performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Britten met Lennox Berkeley who was to become a life-long friend at the April 1936 I.S.C.M. Festival at Barcelona. A joint memento of that Spanish trip was the orchestral suite Mont Juic (1937, four dances; two by each composer) - a fine example of light music. There he heard Antonio Brosa (the soloist three years previously in Arthur Benjamin’s Violin Concerto) playing the Op. 6 Suite for violin and piano. It was at Barcelona where he heard the Berg Violin Concerto. The light-hearted music of Mont Juic was in contrast with the tense atmosphere in Spain at the time. The Spanish Civil War broke out in July the same year. This conflict, Britten’s confirmed pacifism and his friendship with W.H. Auden resulted in various works (a Pacifist March for the Peace Pledge Union, Advance Democracy to words by Randall Swingler and Ballad of Heroes to words by Swingler and Auden). In this Britten reflected the spirit of the times; similar works by Alan Bush, Bernard Stevens, Rutland Boughton and Christian Darnton also date from this period.

Our Hunting Fathers a ‘symphonic cycle for high voice and orchestra’ is a work of enormous gravity, brilliance, mastery and impact. It was written at high speed in 1936. The words were by Auden and centred on man’s relationship with the animal kingdom. Animals are portrayed as pests, pets and the hunted. The music storms wildly evoking the extremes of emotion and technique.  It was premiered at the 1936 Norwich Festival together with the ‘shocking excesses’ of Vaughan Williams’ Five Tudor Portraits. Its message has strong relevance today when ‘animal rights’ has high media prominence. It remains one of Britten’s most underestimated works. This is not a quiet piece like Barber’s Knoxville or a serene one like Finzi’s Dies Natalis. This is a gloriously angry work with blood coursing through its veins.

The Spanish Civil War began to dominate the life of many people during the 1930s. Which side did one support? Should one go and fight and join the International Brigade or stay? Paul Rotha recalled his own decision to make films and warn about the imminent war and the onslaught of world fascism. He made the film People of Britain and commissioned Britten to write and direct the music. The money ran to an orchestra of five players from the LSO with Britten also playing percussion. The film demanded ‘Peace by Reason.’

PETER PEARS

The tenor, Peter Pears (1910-1986) was Britten’s loved companion and work-mate for much of his mature life. They met first in 1937. Pears was in the BBC Singer and was also writing music something which he quickly abandoned as his friendship with Britten grew. Pears’ instantly recognisable voice became the hallmark of many of Britten’s works. It set the seal on Britten’s leaning towards vocal music. Whether the character of that voice in mid-to-old age helped Britten’s reputation in the 1960s and 1970s I doubt. The quality of Pears’ voice evokes strong feelings. If you warmed to it then you were drawn into the Britten sound-world. If not, then it may have served as an obstacle. At a more personal level Pears recalled that Britten was: “devoted to me and unbelievably kind - passionately devoted and close.”

Four years short of the death of Bridge, Britten completed his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Generally acknowledged as one of the earliest masterpieces, it again demonstrates Britten’s insight into the technique of strings and to great effect. The work was first performed at Salzburg in 1937 conducted by Boyd Neel. This Bridge tribute was echoed years later when Britten conducted the English Chamber Orchestra strings in a Decca LP recording of Bridge’s resourceful setting of Sir Roger de Coverley complete with a very satisfying surprise ending. Britten’s Auden song cycle On This Island was also completed at this time.

SUFFOLK

Having bought a house at Snape in Suffolk he moved there in 1938 at the age of 24. The Piano Concerto (one of the fixtures of the Decca catalogue in the Richter performance) was another bright, athletic work. It was premiered in Cheltenham in 1938. Its stable-mate, the Violin Concerto, shares some of the same atmosphere as the Walton Violin Concerto. For years however this was obscured by the Mark Lubotsky Decca recording which seemed to find the romantic core of the concerto an embarrassment rather than a strength. The work is heard to its best romantic effect in the EMI performance by Ida Haendel. The work was completed in Quebec in 1939.

Britten continued to develop the utilitarian strand of his music. He was recognised life-long as a reliable composer. He met deadlines and was business-like. This was remarkable in someone in the rarefied world of the creative artist. Commissions with Britten ‘produced the goods’. He liked to work to a strict timetable whether for his day to day working pattern or for the delivery of a piece of music. He was extraordinarily productive. Imogen Holst who worked as his assistant said he was capable of writing 30 pages of full score in a day! This productivity and faithfulness to deadlines endeared him to institutions and administrators as well as to many in the artistic world who were receptive to his music. He wrote music for BBC radio (28 commissions) and, amongst much else, incidental music for a stage production of J.B. Priestley’s play Johnson Over Jordan.

AN EXILE OF SORTS

War loomed in 1939. Tippett was imprisoned as a conscientious objector. Britten and Pears departed to North America in May 1939 following the example of W.H. Auden. This was in some measure a reaction to slighting comments on his music from influential British musicians. He fully intended at one time to apply for U.S. citizenship so strong were his feelings. Their departure was as Pears recalled greeted with cries of “Cads and cowards … Deserters even, if you will.”

They then made their home for the next three years at Amityville with the Mayers. Britten was 25 and despite his extraordinary successes (how many composers of his age could boast premières of such celebrity?) suffered periods of black despair as recalled by the 26 year old Beata Mayer who Pears recalled had Britten’s life. “He never really believed what he did was great.” (Beata Mayer). Despite this she was sure that he loved working at Amityville and there were many happy moments including when Britten accompanied Pears at the piano in ‘Miss Otis Regrets.’ There were also chamber concerts at Southold in nearby Suffolk County (!) and at one of these Albert Einstein attended.

Britten and Pears often moved between Canada and the East Coast of the U.S.A. War was declared in September. In October Britten completed the song cycle for high voice and strings Les Illuminations setting the verse of Rimbaud. This work has deservedly secured a high reputation and quickly obtained a London premiere in January 1940 (sung by Sophie Wyss), four days after the premiere of a work of comparable lyrical splendour, Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis.

Britten is not really known as a conventional anything and certainly not as a conventional symphonist. That said the Sinfonia da Requiem is a work of considerable symphonic power established by the Mahlerian hammer blows and gloomy tread of the opening. It dates from 1940 and was written to mark the 2600th anniversary of the inception of the Mikado dynasty. It is a work which shares a certain intensity, anger and grieving with other symphonies of this era and of the mid-late 1930s. The Dies Irae movement may be viewed as a tribute to the British volunteers of the International Brigade killed in the Spanish Civil War. It is grimly ironic that Japan was to enter the war as an aggressor against the Allies only a year later. In any event the Japanese authorities rejected the work when the Christian movement titles were announced. They were seen as an insult to Japanese religious sensibility. The work is dedicated to the memory of his parents who had died in 1934 and 1937. It was premiered by Barbirolli in the Carnegie Hall in 1940 with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. The year previously Barbirolli had conducted the Violin Concerto’s premiere in the same hall.

1940 was also the year of Diversions for piano and orchestra. Written for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein it is a work of alert brightness and power. It was completed in Maine. At Amityville he wrote his song cycle Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. During his U.S. stay he struck up a sympathetic friendship with Aaron Copland.

The next year, having moved into the Auden commune in New York, he brought his opera-musical Paul Bunyan to completion and saw it produced at Columbia University to modified acclaim. He met Colin McPhee who introduced him to the music of Bali. Britten and McPhee recorded a selection of Balinese tunes on a Schirmer 78 in New York in 1941. This interest was to come to fruition much later. His official String Quartet No. 1 was written in July. The entertaining Scottish Ballad for two pianos and orchestra was premiered by Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson at Cincinnati in November. Although it has never made much headway it is an entertaining work which would not be out of place as a concert or CD stablemate for Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain or John Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych.


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Index to BIOGRAPHY by Rob Barnett
INTRODUCTION AND REPUTATION
EARLY YEARS AND SCHOOL
FRANK BRIDGE
ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC
SPHERES OF INFLUENCE
FILM MUSIC
I.S.C.M. AND SPANISH INTERLUDE
PETER PEARS
SUFFOLK
AN EXILE OF SORTS
RETURN TO ENGLAND
PETER GRIMES
RADIO MUSIC
THE WAR IS OVER
THE CONFIDENT 1950s
TRAVELLING
RUSSIAN ENCOUNTERS AND FRIENDSHIPS
A CHANGE OF PUBLISHERS
THE MALTINGS, SNAPE
THE CLOSING CHAPTERS
AND THEN ……


THE PRINCIPAL WORKS OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN
A CHRONOLOGY OF HIS WORKS
DISCOGRAPHY  


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