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© Rob Barnett
RETURN TO ENGLAND
Britten in the late 1940s
Courtesy of the Britten-Pears Library
The Philadelphia première of Diversions and a Boston performance of Sinfonia da Requiem by Wittgenstein and Koussevitsky respectively further confirmed Britten’s international reputation. March 1942 saw Britten and Pears making the perilous return voyage to England. En route he wrote the Ceremony of Carols and a work of winsome beauty for choir; The Hymn to Saint Cecilia. This work is sensitively caught in the RCA recording by the Swingle Singers. Arriving in Liverpool in April, the 28-year old Britten, a confirmed pacifist, faced a conscientious objectors tribunal and was determined exempt from military service. The Sinfonia, Michelangelo Sonnets and St Cecilia works all enjoyed prestigious London premieres before the year was out. The Sinfonia was given at a Prom concert on 22 July 1942 conducted by Basil Cameron. Britten’s war work took the form of many UK-wide recital-tours with Pears under the auspices of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). They also gave recitals in prisons.
Many of Britten’s works can be traced to institutional and personal commissions and spontaneous expressions of friendship for other musicians. Julian Bream had to wait “a good ten years” for Nocturnal but the music came! The dark days of 1942 were the background to Britten meeting the horn-player, Dennis Brain. Their friendship drew a request from Brain for a work for his instrument. Britten responded with the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. This master work deploys the horn to wonderful, eerie and romantic effect. At its heart however it is a song anthology setting English poetry with imagination and a special sensitivity to the meaning of the words. While many will be unable to extricate the work from their memories of performances and recordings by Peter Pears, the work is wonderfully caught and with true sustained breath-control by the British tenor, Ian Partridge on an EMI Classics for Pleasure recording (not currently available).
In 1941 he had read E.M. Forster’s study (published in The Listener) of the poetry of the Suffolk poet, George Crabbe and his links with the East Coast. Apart from contributing to the decision to return to England, two years later this bore fruit. Koussevitsky also played a part. The Boston-based conductor asked Britten what he wanted to write at the time. When Britten told him he had an opera in mind but could not afford it. Koussevitsky said ‘All right, I’ll commission it.’
Britten worked with Montagu Slater on a libretto for Peter Grimes, an opera based on ‘The Borough’. The work was to preoccupy him during the early 1940s until its completion in February 1945. The shattering first performance was given at Sadlers Wells in London that summer as the war, which had formed the tragic backdrop to the writing of the opera, shuddering to its close. Pears recalled that it was down to Joan Cross that it was put on at all. There had been opposition to it from the old school of governors and singers.
The reception of Peter Grimes by the first night audience was wonderful and critics were generally favourable. There were rumours that the first night would be the scene of a demonstration but nothing came of this. It was nothing less than an outstanding world-league success for the 31 year old composer. Artistic clocks were reset. It marked not the end of an old era but the start of a new. Of all his works it is Grimes which has kept Britten’s reputation at its high-flame level. From Grimes he quarried, without too much invasive surgery, the Four Sea Interludes and the Passacaglia. These works have a directness of message and language which grip the imagination. If Britten had written nothing else these orchestral portraits of the sea and the emotional life of mankind in all its coldness, fury, cruelty and beauty would have secured his future. Britten always made it clear that he felt at home near the sea: “I cannot do without it.” Of course there were other echoes as well for Grimes too is rejected by his community. Grimes was a dreamer and visionary who could not be tolerated in his community. Despite his success Britten saw himself in this way.
The ending of the war saw Britten visiting the concentration camps at Belsen and elsewhere in company with Yehudi Menuhin. It was also the year of the second string quartet and his musical collaboration with Louis Macneice over the BBC Third Programme radio play, The Dark Tower. The Britten music for radio plays is another rich area for excavation, discovery and recording. It is to be hoped that along with the film music this music will be treated to systematic authentic performance and recording.
THE WAR IS OVER
The opera The Rape of Lucretia, a concept suggested by Rudolf Byng, was premiered at Glyndebourne in July 1946. It was distinguished by a fine cast which was lead by Kathleen Ferrier. In after years Britten recalled how during one of their tours of the opera he had had a blazing row with a friend who was a member of the cast. He recalled that Ferrier took him to one side and gently told him that he must “try to be nice”: which he did! Given that it had been a Koussevitsky commission it was fitting that the first U.S. performance of Grimes was given at Tanglewood in August 1946.
For many their introduction to the music of Britten came with The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This work, which was filmed by the Crown Film Unit for which Britten had already done work, was a further success. The film showed Malcolm Sargent leading the wing-collared orchestra, as well as giving the commentary. It was used widely in schools until well into the 1960s and is now available on video (Beulah RT152) with its ‘sibling’ production ‘Steps of the Ballet’ to music by Arthur Benjamin. Children and amateur performers were at all times close to the heart of Britten’s musical motivation. The film was first shown at a Leicester Square cinema on 29 November 1946. It has of course had a concert life separate from the now somewhat dated film and has been recorded with various celebrity narrators occasionally as a coupling for Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936).
Other operas followed over the intervening years. Albert Herring was completed in 1947. The English Opera Group, which Britten had founded with Joan Cross, Eric Crozier and Peter Pears in 1946, toured Holland and Switzerland in summer 1947. Before the first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948 Britten had completed and brought to first performance a version of John Gay’s ballad-work The Beggar’s Opera.
The Aldeburgh Festival (an annual fixture without fail and which has continued since Britten’s death) was a Britten-centred event and behind which he was the very clear moving force. The premises: various churches and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh were very small and unsuitable but triumphs were won from these adverse circumstances. The first festival opened with Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas. This was the year in which the first grains of an idea of an opera based on Hermann Melville’s novella Billy Budd began to form in conversation with the novelist E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. However before this major work was completed another took precedence: the Spring Symphony. Gripping and glistening, this symphony for solo voices and chorus was premiered in Amsterdam by Eduard van Beinum in July 1949, a couple of months before Pears and Britten returned to the U.S.A. for a recital tour.
Index to BIOGRAPHY by Rob BarnettINTRODUCTION AND REPUTATION
EARLY YEARS AND SCHOOL
ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC
SPHERES OF INFLUENCE
I.S.C.M. AND SPANISH INTERLUDE
AN EXILE OF SORTS
RETURN TO ENGLAND
THE WAR IS OVER
THE CONFIDENT 1950s
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