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Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976

By Roy Brewer

Will this year's 25th anniversary of Britten's death lead to a wider recognition of his place as the most important figure in the younger generation of twentieth century English composers? I am cautiously optimistic, though if it does it will be long overdue. There will of course be the usual tributes and, one hopes, more opportunities to hear his less-frequently-performed works; but a broader based, more mature understanding of the music itself could take longer, for Britten never got under the skin of the public as did such conspicuously "English" composers as Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

This should not be surprising, for even among his contemporaries Britten was a somewhat enigmatic figure, and not easily pigeonholed. Furthermore, Britten was an obsessively private man, and if the hour-and-a-half television documentary, Benjamin Britten: the Hidden Heart (29 July, Channel 4) is anything to go by, we are unlikely to find out much more about him since it concentrated almost entirely on his homosexuality with brief nods towards Peter Grimes and his last opera Death in Venice. In this year's BBC Proms Britten is represented in eight of the 72 concerts, mainly by early works such as the overture to his first opera Paul Bunyan, Les Illuminations, the Sinfonia da Requiem, and the Nocturne for tenor, horn and orchestra, which, considering the present anniversary and his international status, is not a generous allocation. More encouraging is the appearance of several new CDs that explore less familiar aspects of Britten's diverse output, including the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the Canticle Winter Words and folksong arrangements, sung by Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Hyperion, CDH55067), the collection Strawberry Fair, which contains two of Britten's finest folk song cycles sung by the tenor Neil Jenkins and the countertenor Paul Eastwood (Fermate, FER20076) and a new recording by Ian Bostridge of the Serenade and Our Hunting Fathers and (EMI Classics, 5 566871 2).

On the other hand record collectors have been doing well lately for new and reissued Britten recordings. Britten's original Peter Grimes is now available for the first time in 43 years (Decca Legends 467 682-2) and several recent CDs explore less familiar aspects of Britten's diverse output, including the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the Canticle Winter Words and folksong arrangements sung by Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Hyperion, CDH55067) and the collection Strawberry Fair which contains two of Britten's finest folk song cycles sung by the tenor Neil Jenkins and the countertenor Paul Eastwood (Fermate, FER20076). Other reissues include a recital of Britten's piano music recorded in 1971 by Stephen Hough and Ronan O'Hara (EMI CDM 547429-2) and the original EMI recordings by Pears of the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1986), The Heart of the Matter folksong arrangements and other songs (1988) on EMI CZS 5 74346, and a fine new recording by Ian Bostridge of the Serenade (EMI Classics, 5 566871 2) presents interesting comparisons with the classic performance by Pears.

One problem with Britten's music is the deftness with which it can change direction yet remain totally distinctive; there is no guarantee that when a Britten work proves easily accessible the next one will not be a hard nut to crack. Favourites such as The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Simple Symphony and Noye's Fludde will no doubt survive but others, such as the quartets, choral music and song cycles, are seldom programmed.

Britten seems to have arrived on the musical scene fully equipped for his life's work. At age 11 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Frank Bridge. His first published orchestral work, the remarkably mature Sinfonietta of 1932, sounds more French than English, and was followed in 1937 by a tribute to his teacher, the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, a work of precocious elegance and originality. In these and other early works it is possible to find echoes of Stravinsky and Bartók; but Britten's voice was already very much his own, and remained so.

A consummate craftsman, Britten traded the more derivative styles of composers such as Moeran, Bax and Walton for a lonely eminence among a relatively small musical elite curious to discover what he would be up to next. He found inspiration in unexpected places, such as Balinese temple music for the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, oriental mysticism in Five Songs from the Chinese and in German and Russian poetry. Britten was never a "modern" in the sense that Schoenberg and Stravinsky were so regarded, nor was he interested in the musical "isms" that invaded the post war European scene. Nobody, after Schoenberg's break with tonality, could use major/minor harmony with such security and effect. The result of this wayward virtuosity was that, within a few years of his death, important parts of his extensive output were treated in warily by professional musicians and the musical public, alike, and rarely heard in concert halls or found in the record catalogues of the time. The music is too mercurial to submit to easy classification, and what's more Britten committed the unforgivable sin of anyone who wants to be famous in Britain: he was unpredictable.

A commission from the General Post Office to write the music for a documentary film series led to friendship and collaboration with the poet W.H.Auden, whose verse plays The Ascent of F6, On the Frontier and the satirical Our Hunting Fathers were set by Britten. In 1939 the Second World War broke out and Auden persuaded the composer to leave Britain for the USA, accompanied by his lifelong companion, the tenor Peter Pears. Eighteen of the twenty-five works Britten wrote in America are instrumental, and clearly establish what was to become a recognisable "Britten sound" - taut, dramatic and owing little to established European schools of composition. Les Illuminations, a setting of poems by Rimbaud, and the Sinfonia da Requiem are also from the American period, as is his first opera Paul Bunyan (1941); yet he had still not found his true voice, and the American adventure turned out to be little more than an extended visit. Dissatisfied with the opera, homesick and disenchanted with the American way of life, 1942, Britten returned to his cultural roots at the height of the war a to live in the small Suffolk fishing village of Aldeborough, with which his name is now indelibly associated.

Understandably in wartime, neither Britten nor his contemporaries received the wider recognition they might otherwise have earned. Additionally, from the mid-30s onwards radio and the cinema were developing rapidly, and with the advent of television in the '50s, popular culture captured the public's imagination and the concept of "the great British composer" personified by Elgar was consigned to history. (Indeed Elgar himself composed very little after the death of his wife in 1920). Maybe Britten had been too successful too soon. The English tend to distrust versatility in the arts and the impression that, even in his native country, he felt lonely and insecure is hard to discredit. In the eyes of many he had deserted England when the war came, and - for those who knew about it - his homosexuality was a distinct social embarrassment. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that in the 40s his genius went largely unrecognised by the musical establishment, and his music was neglected.

Music festivals are a long-established feature of the British musical scene, but the first Aldeborough Festival in 1948 showed that Britten and Pears did not embrace traditional ideas of what they should be about. Aldeburgh's contemporary bias was proclaimed on the opening night by a first performance of Britten's anthem Voices for Today, broadcast simultaneously in London, Paris and New York. The path was set, and followed unswervingly. The Festival became an avant garde showcase, with many first performances of works by young composers as well as major new works by Britten himself. In 1965, it found a permanent home in the newly built Aldeburgh Festival Theatre where Britten and Pears frequently performed and made notable recordings which have stood the test of time. The original theatre was badly damaged by fire in the early 1970s but, with wealthy support and commercial sponsorship, was quickly rebuilt on an even grander scale. Nevertheless Aldeburgh's aura of cultural exclusivity cannot be ignored. In addition its geographical remoteness and shortage of local accommodation, deterred large sections of the music-loving public from visiting this magnificent part of Suffolk and, despite the exciting things that were happening there, it remained curiously detached from the mainstream of British musical life.

One immense achievement, however, cannot be denied Britten: almost single-handedly he revived English opera and restored it to a place of international importance it had not enjoyed since the eighteenth century. In 1945 Peter Grimes brought to an admiring world the realisation that England had a composer of rare talent and an even rarer ability to convey it in a work of striking beauty and power. (The symbolism of its plot - the, rejection and persecution of Grimes, the "outsider", by a suspicious, inward-looking community - should not be missed).

Another of Britten's successes was to show that not all opera has to be "grand". The operas written between 1946 and 1949 are relatively small in scale but, though none of them scored the resounding success of Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), a new version of Gay's The Beggars' Opera (1948) and The Little Sweep (1949), all written for the English Opera Group, must be numbered among his most enduring achievements. He returned to full-scale opera with Billy Budd (1951) -again a story of cruelty and persecution - Gloriana (1953, the Coronation year), both for Covent Garden, and a sinister portrayal of lost innocence based on a story by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1954). Further success followed with the artful blend of humour and fantasy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, written for Glyndebourne in 1960 and recently revived there. By comparison Owen Wingrave, written in 1971 specifically for television and also revived this year, seems almost defiantly "difficult" and obscure; but of one thing there can be no doubt - Britten put his country back on the musical map. Before the 1970s England possessed only two dedicated opera houses. By the end of the decade there were six, four of which were outside London.

He was also active in the musical education of adults and children. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946) far excels its intended purpose, with a set of variations on a theme of Purcell that included an invigorating fugue and a roof-raising finale. In 1949, Let's make an Opera, was written for talented young people who are given a share in its interpretation and production. The even more ambitious cantata Noye's Fludde, based on a medieval mystery play about Noah's ark, involves professionals and amateurs in a fully-staged choral and instrumental extravaganza full of rousing tunes and opportunities for dressing up and doing animal imitations.

Excellent examples of Britten's ability to infuse a sense of antiquity, exoticism or just gentle simplicity into his material can be found in the vocal music which, in quantity, exceeds his purely instrumental works. Some, such as the folk songs, of which he made over a hundred settings for voice and piano, are sentimental or playful; others such as The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake and settings of poems by Pushkin and Hölderlin are penetrating. Britten's acute sensitivity to language uncovers new dimensions, even in the folk song accompaniments, and his orchestration in works such as the Serenade and Our Hunting Fathers illustrate, in various ways, how Britten's awareness of words, and even syllables, allows the verse to find its own space within the music. Britten did not identify closely with the rather self-conscious English folk song revival espoused by composers such as Ivor Gurney, Butterworth and Vaughan Williams. The accompaniments to the folk songs - especially when played by Britten himself - sound natural and, despite occasional wayward harmonies, complex rhythms and surprising melodic twists, simplicity and innocent freshness are preserved.

This verbal dexterity is the key to a deeper understanding of much of Britten's operatic and vocal writing. His use of Wilfrid Owen's bitter 1914-18 war poems rather than more conventional texts in the War Requiem - written in 1949 for the re-opening of Coventry Cathedral which had been destroyed by bombing during the war - brought an uneasy reaction from those who felt that an outpouring of public grief with overtones of patriotism would have been more appropriate. In this bleak work ideas of peace and renewal are replaced by agonised brooding over death and the futility of war. There is no hint of pride or glorification. As in Grimes and Death in Venice (again the story of an "outsider") there seems to be a hidden programme that dwells on deep personal beliefs. The boundaries between "art" and "reality" are blurred, and the listener allowed into the hearts and minds of the creators of these works. "The poetry", as Owen himself once wrote, "is in the pity",

Britten did not write a great deal that could be called religious in an orthodox sense, though humanistic reverence is plainly present in such choral works as A Boy was Born, A Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb, the Missa Brevis. War Requiem and others.

To the confusing world of contemporary music Britten brought a glittering intelligence - and intelligibility - to what, for many, appeared the frenetic search for "originality", often ending in obscurity, that characterises contemporary music. It is not unusual for great artists to be misunderstood by the public at large, and 25 years is not long to assimilate so varied and contrasting an output, ranging from finely-wrought miniatures to works of challenging complexity. Rather than paying lip service to Britten's genius we - and by we I mean "we British" - should be celebrating a composer of unique distinction through a wider exposure to his music which, by any standards, is a national treasure.

Britten was created a Companion of Honour in 1952 and received the Order of Merit in 1965. He was too ill to supervise the first performance of Death in Venice for the 1973 Aldeburgh Festival, an opera that is almost an abstract essay on the feelings of fear, rejection and personal loneliness that haunted the composer for much of his life. In 1976, just before his death, he was made a Life Peer and became Lord Benjamin Britten, a title that fits awkwardly on one so modest and self-effacing.

© Roy Brewer

August 2001


Benjamin Britten by Rob Barnett

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