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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 


BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976)

© Rob Barnett


THE CONFIDENT 1950s



Peter Pears ca.1959
Photo: Lotte Meitner-Graf
Courtesy of the Britten-Pears Library


The Festival of Britain in 1951 was a time of much musical activity. There were premieres of Vaughan Williams’ drama Pilgrim’s Progress and another operatic ‘Progress’, The Rake’s by Stravinsky. Britten was made Honorary Freeman of Lowestoft. As the year drew to a close he conducted the premiere at Covent Garden of Billy Budd. Post-war confidence was high. A new idealism and a fresh ethos was at work. The Labour Government had introduced many reforms and there was a determination to reject the old and embrace the innovative and slightly dangerous new. The accession of Queen Elizabeth II took place in February 1952. While on a skiing holiday in Austria, Britten conceived the idea of a Coronation opera. Later that year he was made a Companion of Honour. His Coronation project developed into Gloriana which was completed in Coronation year, 1953 and was performed in June. It was not a great success critically. The New Elizabethan Age rejected the opera and it has hardly surfaced since, though a recent recording has thankfully restored its availability. The process of reassessment of this opera has begun with as much vigour as the exploration of the radio and film music.

International travel and the Aldeburgh Festival dominate the years 1954 and 1955. Skiing remained a particular enthusiasm. This however was not to the detriment of his writing activity. In 1954 he completed his operatic setting of the Henry James psychological drama The Turn of the Screw. In 1955 he was finally persuaded to go on a world tour holiday. During the tour he heard gamelan music in Bali and the Noh play ‘Sumidagawa’ in Tokyo. Gamelan had a profound influence upon him. The impact of the exotic east is to be found in a number of his later works including The Songs from the Chinese, the grand ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (strongly accented by gamelan) where he used a virtually independent percussion orchestra and much later in his 1964 opera Curlew River. The voice of gamelan is also to be heard in the opera Death in Venice.

Too easily overlooked is his work for other composers. His performances of Mozart, Purcell, Schumann and Schubert were important and full of insight. His dedicated support for the music of Percy Grainger extended to revivals at the Aldeburgh and a ‘Salute to Grainger’ LP (Decca). This tradition has continued in the safe hands of the conductor Steuart Bedford among others.

TRAVELLING

In 1957 he toured the English Opera Group to Canada. Returning to the U.K., he moved into The Red House in Aldeburgh, now home of the Britten Trust and Estate, in November. Noye’s Fludde, another operatic adaptation, was begun that year and brought to premiere in Orford Church during the following summer. The production was memorable among other things for using struck tea-cups strung on a piece of twine to evoke the first ominous raindrops of the Flood. Apart from some settings of Hölderlin and occasional cantatas the intervening years until October 1959 saw no major creative activity. However in the late autumn of 1959 he began work on his opera Midsummer Night’s Dream which was completed with his accustomed speed in April of the first year of the new decade.

RUSSIAN ENCOUNTERS AND FRIENDSHIPS

The 1960s, with their upheavals and emphasis on popular youth culture and a rising commercialism, left Britten’s music as a distinct tributary. It was no longer within the cultural mainstream, at least not as defined by the atonalists predominant at the BBC and elsewhere. Britten however did not suffer to anything like the same degree as many other essentially tonal composers. In September 1960 a new phase was ushered in by meetings with Rostropovich and Shostakovich. He wrote a Cello Sonata for ‘Slava’ and premiered it with him at Aldeburgh in July 1961. He was very much at ease with ‘Slava’ and his wife, the soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya. Ms Vishnevskaya took the soprano part in the premiere of War Requiem. The Red House carried ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs in various languages including Russian.

There was a commission to write a major work for the opening of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in the English Midlands. The original city cathedral had been destroyed in massive bombing by the Luftwaffe. The 1961 inaugural service was to be a major event of reconciliation and Britten rose to the challenge with his War Requiem. This was by far the most successful work to emerge from the Coventry celebrations. It eclipsed Arthur Bliss’s Beatitudes, a work of comparable sincerity and achievement but which suffered in the glare of the glittering success of the War Requiem as also, to a slightly lesser degree, did Tippett’s opera King Priam, another work premiered in Coventry at the time. The War Requiem was first performed in Russia in Moscow in May 1966.

The Russian connection continued in March 1963 when he visited the USSR. He composed the Cello Symphony in that year. This was written for Rostropovich who recorded it, with the composer, for Decca: a touchstone performance which for many years had the field completely to itself. It was premiered in Moscow in March 1964. Curlew River was given its premiere in Orford Church during that summer but, in October, Britten was back in the USSR with the English Opera Group touring three of chamber operas.

A CHANGE OF PUBLISHERS

He switched publishers in 1965 the year in which he added the Order of Merit to his litany of honours. Emigrating from Booseys to Faber Music he took up a place on the Board of the company and continued to exercise a very strong and direct control over the propagation of his works. His name and music achieved even greater prominence. Broadcasts from Aldeburgh were a fixture of the Third Programme. Britten spent increasing amounts of time in Decca recording studios and not just on his own music.

His Blake settings were completed in April and an Armenian holiday (charted in Pears memoir) followed in August. Apart from a surgical operation, 1966 was marked by a tour of Austria with Pears and after the successful revival of Gloriana in a revised version at Sadler’s Wells in October, a Christmas visit to Leningrad and Moscow to see Shostakovich and Rostropovich.


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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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