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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976)

© Rob Barnett


THE MALTINGS, SNAPE



Benjamin Britten ca. 1960
Photo: Lotte Meitner-Graf
Courtesy of the Britten-Pears Library


For years the Aldeburgh Festival had been labouring with unsuitable accommodation for concerts. At last Britten found a suitable local site for a concert hall. This was the maltings which he had been able to see from his house for so many years. The purpose-built (or I should say substantially adapted) concert hall at The Maltings, Snape had a Royal opening by H.M. The Queen, in June 1967 only to burn to the ground two years later. However 1967 saw plentiful activity including a further tour with the English Opera Group, this time to Montreal, and then tours to New York and South America for a recital series with Peter Pears.

Britten’s celebrity secured a televised performance of Grimes conducted by the composer in 1969. This was the same year in which Britten and Pears began strenuous tours to assist in the fund to rebuild the Maltings. He toured Australia with the EOG in 1970 and gave recitals with Pears in New Zealand. The fund-raising process was a success. Public and institutional support was heartening. The concert hall rebuilding was able to proceed apace and with improvements over the original structure. A reopening took place in June 1970 only a year after the destruction of the first structure. With memories of the Grimes broadcast still fresh his new opera Owen Wingrave was film-recorded in November 1970 and broadcast to a cool critical reception in May 1971. This was also the year of a further visit to Moscow and Leningrad. Britten conducted a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in June 1970. Later he recorded it to considerable success. This was the year in which he began work on his last opera Death in Venice based on a short story by Thomas Mann.

THE CLOSING CHAPTERS

In the last years he moved with Pears and his nurse to a house at Horham and the music room at the bottom of the garden at Horham was where he wrote Phaedra, Death in Venice, the Third String Quartet and the orchestral suite A Time There Was. Although suffering from heart disease he continued to work. There were tours to Schloss Wolfsgarten with Pears. He recorded a benchmark account of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Death in Venice, that strange story of obsession was completed in 1973 and premiered in June at the Aldeburgh Festival. Despite a major heart operation he was able to go to the Covent Garden premiere of Death in Venice on 18 October, a month or so before his 60th birthday and also to holiday with his nurse in attendance one last time at Venice. The opera was recorded at the Maltings the following Easter with the composer in attendance. He continued to compose despite deteriorating health and the Suite on English Folk Tunes (well known from the pioneering Bernstein CBS recording) dates from this era. The suite was full of memories about his idyllic childhood: about what had been and about what could have been but now never could be. There were to be yet more performances of Death in Venice and in July 1975 a performance of Peter Grimes. He also completed his song cycle Phaedra (similar in approach to Bliss’s) that year and finished his third and final numbered string quartet between April and November.

During 1975 one of Britten’s projects had been the revision of his 1941 opera-musical Paul Bunyan. With this completed the BBC broadcast the work in a studio performance in February 1976 and the stage premiere of this version was given at the Maltings in June. Phaedra (effectively a mini-opera) was premiered with Dame Janet Baker at Snape later that month. He was created Baron Britten of Aldeburgh on 12 June 1976, the first composer to enjoy that honour (Lord Berners was an hereditary peer). His fragile health prevented him from ever taking his seat in the House of Lords.

He took a summer holiday in Bergen but was back to hear a private performance of the Third String Quartet given by the Amadeus Quartet in The Red House library in late September. He celebrated his 63rd birthday on 22 November 1976. On 4 December, in the arms of Peter Pears, he died at the Red House. Pears recalled that Britten was not afraid of dying. He died peacefully with sadness at the thought of leaving friends and responsibilities. Pears recalled him saying that to him: “I want to die before you. I don’t know what I could do without you.” He was buried in Aldeburgh Cemetery on 7 December 1976.

AND THEN ……

The obituaries and tributes were full but the praise was attenuated in the atmosphere of the time. Other composers extended tributes to Britten some during his life and some afterwards. Shostakovich dedicated his Symphony No. 14 (1969) to Britten. Appropriately the symphony is a massive song cycle for soprano, bass, string orchestra and percussion. Walton produced his orchestral Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten (1969 - the theme is from the Piano Concerto). Peter Racine Fricker wrote a Sinfonia in his memory in 1978. Arvo Pärt’s reputation was largely established with the generalist music lover in the late-1970s by the gentle tolling of his Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

Britten’s music while largely escaping the usual post-mortem neglect was, in the 1970s and 1980s, seen as somewhat reactionary. However it has continued to be performed and recorded and shows no sign of losing momentum. What the perspective of 2025 or 2050 will be we do not know but while works of the accomplishment, beauty and vigour of Grimes and the Serenade are still available it is dubious that they will ever fall out of the concert or recorded repertoire. Perhaps other works will rise to prominence from amongst the incidental music. Many have been revived in recent years.

Some previously unpublished pieces have been produced in collaboration with the Britten Estate. These include the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola, premièred at Snape by the Britten-Pears Orchestra under Kent Nagano in June 1997. Two Portraits for String Orchestra were premièred BBC Radio 3 in December 1995 by the Northern Sinfonia under Martyn Brabbins. The World of the Spirit has been revived in both the full version (first performed in 1938 on the BBC Home Service) and the abridged version in December 1995. The King Arthur Suite for Orchestra was premièred at Snape in 1995 by the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra under Lutz Kohler. His last work Praise We Great Men (a Sitwell cantata) was unfinished although it was completed by Colin Matthews and premiered at the Snape Maltings in 1985 with Marie McLaughlin, Heather Harper, Philip Langridge, Richard Jackson, Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra all conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.

Our Hunting Fathers is still a rare item. This is quite unaccountable. It may yet become more popular. All it needs is for one of any generation of rising young sopranos to take up one of the songs as a competition piece. OHF is a virtuoso piece for singer and orchestra although it has many other deeper qualities as well. With the exception of Grimes I doubt the longer-term ‘staying power’ of the operas. There is however so much in Britten’s music with that vital flame that his reputation and, more to the point, his music, is likely to survive in the concert hall, on radio and on recorded media well into the 21st century and beyond. People will also enjoy the rare privilege of his recorded interpretations of his own music living on in excellent sound in perpetuity.

© Robert Barnett


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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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