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V The evolution of a tradition

15 Benjamin Britten


Like the musical thought of some of his larger works, Britten’s career has developed simultaneously on several different levels; whether as composer, pianist, founder of both the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival, or conductor, his is the most acute musical sensibility; his knowledge and appreciation of literature are formidable; moreover, his music is the best-known and most performed of any contemporary English composer. He has strongly influenced a large number of younger composers, particularly in matters of operatic style. He has received public recognition by being-made a Companion of Honour (1953), and being awarded the Order of Merit (1965). In 1964 he received the first Aspen award in America.

He was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1913, on November 22nd-St. Cecilia’s day. His talents appeared early; by 1930 he had already written a large quantity of music, both instrumental and vocal, including well over fifty songs [Some were published in 1969 under the title Tit for Tat]. Looking back at these boyhood works, Britten has said, revealingly: ‘The choice of poets was nothing if not catholic. There are more than thirty of them, ranging from the Bible to Kipling, from Shakespeare to an obscure magazine poet "Chanticleer"; there were many settings of Shelley and Burns and Tennyson, of a poem by a schoolmaster friend, songs to texts by Hood, Longfellow, "Anon",- and several French poets; and one to the composer’s own words ("One day when I went home, I sore a boat on the sands"). In some cases the songs were written so hurriedly that there was no time to write the words in, or even to note the name of the poem or poet. The poet whose name appears most frequently is Walter de la Mare, whose verse caught my fancy very early on. I possessed several of his volumes, but a few poems were evidently copied from inaccurate reprints in anthologies... At any rate, although I hold no claims whatever for the songs’ importance or originality, I do feel that the boy’s vision has a simplicity and clarity which might have given a little pleasure to the great poet, with his unique insight into a child’s mind.’

He went to Gresham’s School, Holt, in Norfolk, and during school holidays Frank Bridge gave him lessons in harmony and counterpoint; a valuable discipline for a precocious youngster. In 1930 he went to the Royal College of Music, where he was under John Ireland for composition, and Arthur Benjamin for piano. His musical horizon broadened during these years, and many valuable contacts were made with other musicians. The first of his long list of works, the Sinfonietta, Op. 1, dates from June/July 1932, and was the only one of his student works to be performed at the College; it was written with characteristic speed, in about three weeks, and also was the first work to reach a wider, though specialist, public. [1. At a Macnaghten concert on 31st January 1933].

On leaving the College in 1934, Britten was anxious to spend some time in Vienna studying with Alban Berg; but the combined wisdom of his elders advised against such an extreme course. It is interesting, indeed, though perhaps vain, to speculate what effect the composer of Wozzeck would have had on the twenty-one-year old Englishman. Britten at this time was seething with ideas; he had no doubt whatever that he was to be a composer; and yet he was uncertain of that goal towards which his creativity should be directed. Fluency and facility make their own exacting demands.

As he faced the prospects of musical London, two factors helped him: the first was a contract with a publisher, Ralph Hawkes, whose confidence turned out to be handsomely rewarded [Rarely has a composer been supported by his publisher with more sustained and steady publicity than Britten’s publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, accorded him in their house magazine Tempo. Starting in September 1946, twenty seven full-length articles appeared, culminating in a fiftieth birthday issue (No. 66/7, Autumn-Winter, 1963). Britten's present publisher, Faber Music, are evidently tempting history to repeat itself by offering a contract to another young College student, Douglas Young]; the second was a chance to work on documentary films, for the G.P.O. Film Unit. He had already written the title music for a documentary film Cable Ship in 1933, and between 1935 and 1939 he wrote seventeen more, as well as a considerable number of other film scores, and incidental music for plays. In this way a very difficult period of his creative life was successfully surmounted. As far as technique and style were concerned, not only did film work require fluency and speed of writing, which have always been his in abundance, but it also developed his ingenuity, and ability to write effectively for small combinations of instruments, a trait which was to be fully realised later.

But he was a long time finding his true musical personality. One decisive factor was his close friendship with the poet W. H. Auden. Though some years Britten’s senior, Auden had also been at Gresham’s School, Holt; and it soon became clear that his voice was characteristic of the 30s [The young poets of the 1930s, whose work was represented in New Signatures (1932) are described by Leonard Woolf in his autobiography Downhill All the Way pp. 174-6]. His work took him to the theatre; it also took him, as luck would have it, to the G.P.O. Film Unit, which thus became, however unwittingly, the patron of a remarkable artistic partnership. Coal Face and Night Mail 1936) were the immediate result; but the collaboration between Auden and Britten was extended farther than the film world, into the theatre and beyond. Auden supplied what Britten needed, that poetic impulse and image to which his own creativity could respond. So over the next few years many of Britten’s main works were settings of Aden's words: Our Hunting Fathers, On this Island, Ballad of Heroes, and the operetta Paul Bunion [This was performed on 5th May 1941 in New York, but later withdrawn]. The partnership ended with the Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942).

It was largely through Auden that Britten decided to go to America in 1939. The rise of Fascism in Europe, particularly after the Spanish Civil War, and the Munich affair in 1938, made it appear to him that only in the New World could an artistic personality be fully developed. Moreover, travel in itself can be important for a young composer, particularly if English audiences prove frustratingly slow to win over, as they usually do. So in the summer of 1939 Britten and his friend Peter Pears left for America.

After staying with the American composer Aaron Copland [Copland had been in London in June 1938, when his El Salon Mexico was given at an I.S.CM. concert and met Britten during his stay in England (see 50th Birthday Symposium)] in Brooklyn, they went to Amityville, Long Island, which was their home for the next two years. While in America, Britten’s services both as pianist and composer were much in demand. Works which date from this time include several works for orchestra, the Violin Concerto, the First String Quartet, and two song cycles, Les Illuminations to French words by Rimbaud, and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo with an Italian text.

The years in America mark the end of his preparatory, formative stage as a composer. Gradually the characteristics of his true style became apparent. His is that highly sensitive form of creativity that responds to an already-existing image, and illustrates it with music. The image may be literary, pictorial, dramatic, religious; the resulting composition is a sequence of colourful sound impressions, rather than the development of purely musical themes. Such a style is clearly much more inclined towards vocal and dramatic works than to symphonic treatment; and indeed, after his return from America, orchestral or instrumental works form a very small part of his output, and give place to the operas. Also, his response to other composers’ works makes him the most sensitive of performing artists, whether as pianist or conductor.

His work with Auden in America was centred round the operetta Paul Bunion, which dealt with the early settlers in that country. It was not a success, though it paved the way for what was to come. The image of the American pioneer would strike much more of a response in an American composer; indeed, Copland’s Appalachian Spring is about just that. Would not an English composer be more inspired by something which he knew from experience in his own country?

And so whereas Auden became an American citizen, Britten did not. He decided to return to England in 1941. But this was no simple matter in wartime, and it was not until March 1942 that a passage was found, on a neutral Swedish cargo boat. The months of waiting were not wasted, however, for they resulted in his meeting Serge Koussevitsky, when the latter performed his Sinfonia da Requiem in Boston; this meeting resulted in an advance of $1,000 to the young composer, to enable him to devote time to writing a full length opera, which would be dedicated to the memory of Koussevitsky’s wife Natalie, who had recently died. The result, three years later, was Peter Grimes.

Nor were the weeks spent on the voyage home idle ones: the Hymn to St. Cecilia and A Ceremony of Carols were written on the boat.

On returning to England, he lived at Snape, a few miles from Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Five years later he moved to Aldeburgh itself. Now, starting with the Serenade (1943), his work enters a more mature period. He is no longer searching for a sense of artistic direction; now it is a question of finding those images that would inspire him, and be a vehicle for his creativity; his background became the England that he knew. From now on, starting with Peter Grimes (1945), the greater part of his output was to consist of opera, and other vocal and choral works.

The initial impact of Peter Grimes, its famous premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 7th June 1945, and its instant success, which chiefly enhanced Britten’s reputation, led to two far-reaching results: first the formation of a new opera company, the English Opera Group; next, the establishment of a Festival at Aldeburgh. At this time (1948) music festivals were comparatively rare; their mushroom-like spread came later. Over the coming years the Aldeburgh Festival was to make a most positive contribution to the British musical scene, with a characteristic of its own. Mainly the direct inspiration of Britten and Pears, it nevertheless owed its growth to the work of many other helpers, particularly Imogen Holst and Stephen Reiss. Concerts were given in houses, halls and churches in and around Aldeburgh; at Orford, Blythburgh, Ely and elsewhere. Excellent performances by a small number of artists, and something of the atmosphere of a court-a monarch surrounded by his courtiers - have given the Festival a personal flavour rarely found in the more commercial rough-and-tumble of the concert world; and this matches the highly personal nature of Britten’s style as a composer.

The formation of the English Opera Group, which would develop a tradition of British opera, old and new, and tour in this country and abroad, was a natural concomitant to Britten’s work as an opera composer, and a logical result of the general artistic direction in which he was facing. Opera has always been a minority cult in England, and in the immediate post-war years the outlook was bleak indeed; the only way to get your work performed was to form your own company, particularly if you wanted it sung in English. For reasons of economics it would have to be numerically small. And so the new company presented itself, at Glyndebourne on 12th July 1946, in Britten’s next opera, The Rape of Lucretia. This was the first of his chamber operas, and was followed the next year by another, Albert Herring; and in 1948 by an arrangement of The Beggar’s Opera.


Meanwhile, that year the first Aldeburgh Festival took place, and so the 1949 production was a work designed for the somewhat limited capacity of the local Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh. Let’s Make an Opera calls for only a string quartet, piano and percussion, and is described, accurately, as an ‘entertainment for young people’. It is the prototype of many other such works for children, by younger composers such as Malcolm Williamson, Gordon Crosse, and others.

Gradually the reputations of the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival spread internationally, along with that of their founder. In 1954 his fourth chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw, was produced at the Venice Biennale, while six years later a redesigned Jubilee Hall witnessed the premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A most marked advance in the status of the Aldeburgh Festival was made with the building of a specially designed concert hall at Snape, The Maltings. This provided an opportunity for royal recognition, when it was opened by the Queen during the 1967 Festival. It was specifically made suitable for opera performances, as well as chamber and orchestral concerts, and recording. Unfortunately it was very largely built of wood, and on 7th June 1969 it was destroyed by fire after a concert. However, rebuilding was immediately started, and it was ready in time for the opening of the Festival the following year, on 5th June 1970. Again the Queen attended. Against such a background of continual and much-varied activity we may consider Britten’s output as a composer.



The image that inspires Britten’s songs is mainly, and quite obviously, verbal, literary; of all composers, he is the most aware of, and susceptible to, the poetic image; and the poets that he has chosen to set have for this reason invariably been of the first rank; that is to say, those whose vision is clearest, all-embracing, and whose poetry thus both gives the strongest stimulus and invites the strongest response. Of first importance for him, therefore, in realising the poetic image are the capabilities of the human voice, and the clear enunciation of the words, with that rhythmical flow proper to them. Speed, pitch, interval, dynamic, timbre, that together constitute the melodic line, are made to serve this purpose. Next, the accompaniment, whether piano solo or other instruments, is used to throw into relief the solo line, and by means of an illustrative ostinato figure, to enhance the meaning and mood of the poet’s text. So expressiveness is found in the vocal line; colour in the accompaniment.

Within the framework of a diatonic style, many suggestive devices are used. All too easily can a simple idiom slip into the obvious, the banal. Bitonality and polytonality are two of the commonest ways of avoiding this; that is to say, the simultaneous use of more than one key; also the suggestion of ambiguous tonality by means of a unison accompaniment-a ground-bass, allowing for free variation in the upper parts, is one of Britten’s commonest devices; also the introduction of unexpected progressions, and subtleties of metre. In later works, particularly since the War Requiem, there is a greater freedom in the vertical combination of different parts, and a greater sense of spaciousness.

The early songs and choral works were not always fully successful in realising the verbal image, though some works, On This Island for example, contain hints of the individuality that was to come; and Ballad of Heroes is cast in four-movement form, thus foreshadowing the Spring Symphony, while Our Hunting Fathers, particularly in its skilful handling of the orchestra, suggests the future operatic composer.

But his individual characteristics first appear more markedly in Les Illuminations and the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. In the first of these works particularly, for high voice and strings, there is greater freedom of Vocal line, and greater colour in the accompanimental part, which in this case consists of a string orchestra. The bitonal opening uses two keys (E and Bb) a tritone apart, and thus provides the harmonic basis of the work-a procedure which was to be used later in the War Requiem. Moreover, the threefold repetition of the refrain, ‘I alone hold the key to this savage parade’, lends a structural unity to the suite as a whole. Unfortunately the French words of this cycle, and the Italian words of the Michelangelo songs, while no doubt meaningful to the connoisseur, act as an impediment to the ordinary English listener, to that directness of effect, that rapport with the mass of the audience, which is the cornerstone of such an idiom and style as Britten’s.

But once this obstacle is overcome the songs explore various moods within the limited framework of one poetic idea, in a way that is rather reminiscent of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder-an earlier example of an orchestral song-cycle, which does the same.

Britten indeed has said that he has been influenced by Mahler, and it is not difficult to see certain points of similarity; both wrote song-cycles with orchestra, both had an individual interpretation of tonality, both aimed at a quality of intense dramatic lyricism. The underlying difference between them, however, is that whereas Mahler was a symphonic composer, Britten’s work has been primarily vocal and operatic; and whereas Mahler’s symphonies were set against a symphonic tradition that had been a gradual growth since Haydn, the English operatic tradition was a very fragmentary affair; it is indeed reasonable to say that its start still (1943) lay in the future, with Britten’s own work.

Directness of effect is the chief strength of the Serenade, that most colourful song-cycle with which he announced his return to England. Unity is achieved round the theme of night-another Mahlerian concept; structurally the work is framed (as the Ceremony of Carols had been) by a Prologue and Epilogue; in this case a horn-call, which was modelled on an idea from Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theater [the English horn solo in the Interlude]. But the world abounds in individual characteristics, which indicate that pattern of musical expressiveness that he was to build on later [see p. 224/5]; the triadic pattern of the Pastoral, with its falling phrase to suggest the peace and calm of evening, and lengthening shadows; the onomatopoea of the bugle in the Nocturne; the semitonal inflection of the Elegy to suggest sickness, destruction; the repeated vocal part of the Dirge, which takes up the closing note of the previous song, and appears against a gradually more complex accompaniment; the duet for voice and horn of the Hymn, in which the use of melisma on the word ‘Excellently’ suggests some extravagant gesture of obeisance before the moon-goddess; the silence of the Sonnet, which prepares for its final solo Epilogue. Britten’s meticulous craftsmanship, whatever the nature of his material, ensures effective performance.

Two strongly individual characteristics of style, particularly in choral works, also first appeared fully about this time; the first is a vivace style of writing for voices; the second is the structural use of canon. Both characteristics appear fully for the first time in the Hymn to St. Cecilia for unaccompanied voices, which is a simple and effective example of the new virtuoso style that was transforming English choral music. The second section (‘I cannot grow’) is a particularly clear example of the combination of both these characteristics.

The stylistic advance shown in the Serenade was consolidated in the songs that followed, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Apart from the now-established features of ostinato accompaniment-patterns, bitonality, vivace style, and the use of intervals for expressive purposes, these songs also have a virtuoso quality of the sort that composers only achieve after long collaboration with sympathetic performers of equal calibre; in this case Britten had the advantage of working with the tenor, Peter Pears, who has always been his prime interpreter and colleague. The Donne Sonnets are linked by the religious sentiments of a soul approaching death; the gloomy foreboding of the first song (B minor) eventually resolves into the bold confidence of the last (B major).

The thread linking together the five songs that make up A Charm of Lullabies is one of mood, while in Winter Words Britten was inspired by, among other things, Thomas Hardy’s sense of humour. The ostinati are, as usual, triadic, and frequently polytonal; again, as in the Serenade, a falling phrase represents day-close; but other less subjective ideas present themselves for our consideration-isolated jabs, of two notes a major second apart, represent a creaking table; an accompaniment figure in open fifths represents a violin tuning up.

The first of the three Canticles derives its effect from its subdued simplicity, which allows the symbolic words of Francis Quarles to make their impact unimpeded. Melisma is used at phrase-climaxes, and in the middle section the vivace style is combined with contrapuntal inversion in the accompaniment (‘Nor time, nor place’) before the piece reverts to its prevailingly sombre tone.

The Second Canticle is limited in vocal range by the plainsong style, which the composer uses to portray the religious situation. It is harmonically static, and relies for its effect on the drama inherent in the Abraham/Isaac relationship, that of a father who is compelled to kill his own much-loved son. God’s voice is represented by the two singers (contralto and tenor) singing together, either in unison, or a fourth apart, to suggest early organum. Britten reverted to this work later, in the War Requiem.

The Third Canticle, written in memory of the pianist Noel Mewton Wood, is altogether more individual a work. Edith Sitwell’s poem dictated not merely its nature but also its structure, which is that of a theme (‘slow and distant’) and six short, very contrasted variations for horn, interspersed with six verses of free recitation for the voice. Horn and voice come together for the last variation, and sound the first and second phrases of the opening theme simultaneously. The motto, ‘Still falls the rain’, marks the beginning of each verse, while each variation ends on the key-note, B flat, and its material contains the melodic shape of the verse which follows it. The B flat theme is made up of three phrases, of which the second is an inversion of the first; the third is the longest and contains inversion within itself. Thus arises the structural outline of each variation.

The Songs from the Chinese for high voice and guitar, with a text made up of characteristically philosophical Chinese proverbs, are slight in content, and simple in style, as befits the nature of the instrument. They act as a light interlude to the two more substantial song-cycles composed the following year (1958), the Nocturne and Six Hölderlin Fragments.

The Nocturne takes up after the Serenade, and again uses the image of sleep from which to conjure up musical associations. Strings and seven solo obbligato instruments provide the accompaniment; the strings open with the sleep motif, a rocking figure which underlines the work and provides a structural cohesion; each of the ensuing seven songs has a different solo obbligato; for instance Tennyson’s Kraken is given a bassoon obbligato, while to Keats’ ‘Sleep and Poetry’ is allotted the flute and clarinet. The mood is dark, tense, in some points approaching nightmare. The work ends with strings and wind together, in an unaccustomedly full texture, for Shakespeare’s forty-third sonnet, with strings and voice echoing each other.

Britten’s use of intervals, particularly the interval of the semitone to express anguish, tension, darkness (see p. 224/5), is well illustrated in this song cycle, in which the underlying theme of the night-the contrast and conflict between night and day, sleep and waking, dream and reality-is musically symbolised in the relationship of two keys a semitone apart (C and C flat). The most dramatic expression of this conflict occurs in the Shakespeare sonnet, and so for this poem both keys appear simultaneously. The ending is tonally vague, and suddenly veers into the minor.

It was his friend Prince Ludwig of Hesse and the Rhine who introduced Britten to the poems of Johann Christian Hölderlin (I770-1843). The words of these poems are heavy with ideas, explicit and implicit; they suggest as much as they mean. The Six Hölderlin Fragments are given a structural and thematic unity by the use in different guises throughout the work of the material stated at the opening. The pattern of rising fourths, taken from the third variation of the Third Canticle, supplies the melodic and harmonic outline, and suggests many tonalities. Another similarity with the Canticle is the use of inversion, for instance in the voice part of the fourth song. Canon is also much in evidence, between the voice and piano in the second song, or between piano parts in the sixth.

The Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with the words selected by Peter Pears, present a different world. Though William Blake (1757-1827) was a contemporary of Hölderlin, there is a world of difference between the two poets. Whereas Hölderlin gently reflects the Romanticism of his day and was very much under the shadow of Goethe, William Blake was a visionary who saw far beyond his own age; he was ablaze with poetic imagery and religious fire. Clearly these two poets present widely differing material to the aspiring composer. Hölderlin’s words, like Edith Sitwell’s words of the Third Canticle, are poetically suggestive, and thus receptive to musical realisation. Blake’s words however are powerfully descriptive; their integrated imagery already has an impact unexceeded by any words in the English language, and therefore they are not so open to suggestive or atmospheric music. Such poems as ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ are hardly, if at all, enhanced by the ostinato technique of song-writing; indeed the figure allotted to the first of these poems-a quick, scale-like phrase starting at low pitch, very quiet, leading to spread chords-tends to confine the listener's imagination to one specific idea of the tiger, instead of allowing it to roam freely, as the beast itself does, and as the poet invites us to do.

The structure of the Blake songs is broadly similar to that of the Third Canticle; the ‘proverbs’ correspond to the instrumental variations of the earlier work, while the ‘songs’ correspond to the vocal sections. Moreover the material and basic shape of each proverb is the same, though its presentation differs; and it leads directly into the song which follows it. But whereas the Canticle was itself a simple, unified work in several sections, each of Blake’s poems is a separate and distinct thing in its own right. There is no unifying thread.

Britten’s association with the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich took him to Russia several times, and on one such visit, in August 1965, he wrote The Poet’s Echo for Rostropovich’s wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, who first performed the songs in December at the Moscow Conservatoire. The Pushkin poems, again, have no unifying thread, though there is some connection of thought and mood between the first song (Echo) and the fourth (The Nightingale and the Rose). As in the Hölderlin songs, the material of each song is derived from material presented at the opening of the first; this consists of two fifths, one augmented, one diminished, which are both played as a chord and used as a melody.


Cantatas and Choral Works

Britten has written numerous works for non-professional performers; gebrauchsmusik for churches, school children. The larger choral pieces, St. Nicholas for example, are thus somewhat limited in expressive range, and often overwhelmingly obvious; they were written for participation rather than for responseful listening; but the dramatic works for young performers have an extra dimension which the more formal, static choral pieces do not; they are therefore much more interesting. Apart from one or two small choral works which fall into the gebrauchsmusik category - such as Rejoice in The Lamb, Festival Te Deum and St. Nicholas-the Spring Symphony was the first substantial choral composition since the Hymn to St. Cecilia. The term ‘symphony’ is a misnomer, since the work lacks symphonic growth or development. It is a suite of songs with orchestral accompaniment, on the general topic of spring, culminating in a sort of rustic patriotism, with the Reading Rota thrown in for good measure. An earlier example of such a poetic miscellany, formed into a choral suite, is Arthur Bliss’s Pastoral (1929), in which the poems deal with the general topic of the countryside. Lambert’s Summer's last will and Testament also falls in this category.

Once again, few choral works followed, apart from small ones; the Five Flower Songs for Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst [The founders of Dartington Hall in Devon, with whom Britten had stayed], and the two little Church works, Op. 56. It was ten years before the next important choral composition appeared, the Cantata Academica. This remarkable work was written for the quincentenary of Basel university, and first performed there on 1st July 1960. The Latin words are taken from the University Charter; and however inspiring such a document might be to those well Versed in Latin, Britten abandoned his customary procedure, and simply used the words as a peg on which to hang a set of choral variations on a theme. The theme is a 12-note one, but tonal, in the key of G minor, and he brings to bear every academic device he can think of to breath life into this ‘row’. The twelve notes dominate each section either harmonically or melodically, and the work as a whole is an abstract study in contrapuntal ingenuity.

Very different, and much more characteristic, is the Missa Brevis written for George Malcolm and the boys of Westminster Cathedral that same year (1959). In a sense it is a foretaste of the main work in Britten’s choral output so far, which was written two years later, the War Requiem.

In this work, as usual, the principal parts are allotted to the singers, whether solo or choral; the orchestras are accompanimental. But the range of mood is wider than hitherto, because the image that this time inspired Britten was two-fold: religious truths on the one hand, expressed in the timeless words of the Missa pro defunctis, and human pity on the other, expressed in the anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen. It was a theme, and an occasion, which affected the composer deeply; he had always been opposed to war, since the 30s when he wrote the Ballad of Heroes for those who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Now in 1962, as it turned out, he was accurately reflecting an anti-war mood that was widespread at this time; it was a mood that was reflected in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Aldermaston Marches; there was a genuine popular fear that political tension between America and Russia would erupt into open nuclear warfare, as had very nearly happened already in Korea. Moreover the English, with their customary taste for anniversaries, were just approaching the fiftieth one of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914; the realities of warfare were preying on the popular imagination. What could more aptly epitomise this mood than the work of Wilfred Owen, whose poetry had a sudden upsurge in the years up to 1964?

Such was the general background to the War Requiem, which was first heard in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral on 30th May 1962, within sight of the old bombed-out building. The whole performance was intended to be an act of international reconciliation: the soloists were to be a Russian, a German and an Englishman [The work was recorded with Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears]; a true coming-together for an act of collective remembrance and pity.

The work is conceived on three levels. The main sections of the Latin Requiem are allotted to the full chorus and main orchestra; the Owen poems are sung by tenor and baritone soli, accompanied by chamber orchestra; the distant choir of boys’ voices are accompanied by a chamber organ. Occasionally two levels overlap, as in the Agnus Dei; all three come together for the final pages.

The words of the Requiem provide the overall structure; the Wilfred Owen poems, four of which were textually altered by Britten, are interspersed. Such a principle had been adopted in several previous works and had been used four years previously by Fricker in The Vision of Judgement. In this case the two themes are juxtaposed in stark contrast, and the musical material of the solo sections is derived from the music of that part of the Mass to which they are attached. The image that chiefly inspires Britten, to which his music is the response, is pity. To an observer, the results of wars are pitiful; the composer realises this pitifulness, which he presents, exposes and reflects. How we respond to his art depends on our view of the artistic function. Is it to describe or to explain? To explore or to interpret? To observe or to prophesy? The larger the theme, the greater the need for creative insight, not merely into the appearance of events, but into their reality.

And how are we to interpret pity? It is a simple matter to dispel any sense of emotional detachment or religious complacency by the rude contrast of the battle-field. Such a dramatic device indeed provides a contrast that is basic, almost primitive. But it does not lead to any conclusion. What is to be our view? Anger? Resignation? If we accept that the artist’s function is to interpret suffering, not merely to indicate the fact that it exists, then such dwelling on pity can come very near to self-pity, which is anything but ennobling. Pity is not necessarily the same as compassion. Only the compassion and the prophecy of a great artist can point the way through suffering to a wider goal; but the War Requiem stops short at the pity.

Technically speaking, one unifying feature, as it had been in Les Illuminations, is the interval of the tritone (C-F sharp), which pervades the work right from the opening. Other familiar technical characteristics are the use of canon, inversion, and ostinati; a not-so-familiar feature is the freer vertical combination of independent levels of sound. Britten is very far from being an aleatoric composer, but the simultaneous sounding together of the different groups and soloists does call for a freedom, a lack of rigidness on the part of both conductors.

Earlier works are suggested, both generally and in particular. The Owen poem ‘Bugles sang’, which follows the Dies irae, and is based on the trumpet fanfare at the beginning of it, inevitably evokes echoes of the Nocturne movement in the Serenade. The closest quotation of all occurs in the Offertorium, which is made up of material from the Second Canticle, Abraham and Isaac. As before, the divine voice is represented by two singers at the interval of a fourth. This section moreover provides a clear example of Britten’s artistic response to the theme of pity. Whereas in the Abraham and Isaac story, Abraham was spared from killing his son Isaac because he had been obedient to God’s wish, in Owen’s poem, because of disobedience, he does kill him-’and half the seed of Europe, one by one’. The very term Offertorium takes on a grimly distorted meaning, which is called to mind immediately by the distant boys’ voices, singing ‘Hostias et preces tibi Domine laudis offerimus’.

What the composer suggests by this juxtaposition is overwhelming in its potentially tragic implication; but he is content to leave it at that. And so the listener who responds positively to these implications is left suspended as it were in mid-air, because they are not pursued; the theme is stated, not interpreted. Pity is there, but nothing more; if our emotions are roused, they are not purged; and the conclusion of the Offertorium section, as indeed of the work as a whole, is simply an inconclusive quietness.

Several critics have suggested a similarity with Verdi’s Requiem, particularly in the dramatic treatment of the material. But an interesting comparison may also be made between this work of Britten and another highly unorthodox Requiem, written nearly fifty years earlier-that of Delius. At first glance the two works could hardly be more different. Britten’s I5 written from the Christian, that of Delius from an atheistic standpoint; Britten was as responsive to the mood of the 60s as Delius was indifferent to, and remote from, that of the First World War; the result is that the work of the later composer was a spectacular success, whereas that of the earlier was an unqualified and unmitigated failure. That said, however, both works have a common origin-the artistic personal stand against the violence and tyranny of the twentieth century; the aggressive instinct that finds its outlet in nationalism and war. Britten sought to show, through Wilfred Owen and the traditional Requiem, the need for pity; Delius, however, also reacting against the false patriotism and mass hysteria of 1914, sought a solution in an anti-Christian philosophy, based on Nietzsche, which propounded the need for self-reliance, the finality of death, the transitory state of man. His was also a major work, written in 1914/16 as a personal tribute to ‘all young artists who sacrificed their lives during the war’. But in 1920, popular memories of the recent slaughter were too fresh to admit the wide acceptance of a work which was based on such a negative philosophy. However fine the music might be-and in places it is very fine-this could not rescue a work whose basic tenets were so out of keeping with the mood of the moment. Only the more permissive, less doctrinally secure, mood of the 60s has allowed Delius’s Requiem to be listened to again in recent years.

The War Requiem did not prove to be, like Peter Grimes, the beginning of a new artistic development in British music; its artistic raison d'être arose from a transitory, popular mood, felt at a specific moment in time, while its structure rested, for all its embellishments, on the foundation of the old oratorio tradition.

Following the War Requiem, two smaller works were concerned with the general theme of peace and pity: the Cantata Misericordium, and an anthem for the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations (1965), for chorus of men, women and children, Voices for Today. The Cantata Misericordium is a setting in Latin of the parable of the Good Samaritan; tenor and baritone soloists enact the story, while the choir function rather as the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, and keep the audience informed of the events, as well as comment on them. It was composed for the centenary commemoration of the Red Cross in Geneva, on 1st September 1963. Though much less ambitious a work than the War Requiem, and much shorter (twenty minutes as opposed to eighty-five,) it is in many ways more artistically complete. Britten’s characteristic style - the immediately arresting ostinato pattern, and the lack of motivic development-is much more applicable to a short work than an extended one; and more over the dramatic development of the theme of pity, which gives the work momentum, is much more complete in the Cantata; the story is not merely told, it is also interpreted.

And Britten’s response to this image, though more orthodox than in the case of the War Requiem, is no less compelling. We are reminded of a Bach Cantata. Indeed, his debt to Bach is most strongly felt in the alternation of chorus, arioso and recitative; also in the molto tranquillo section at [30], ‘Dormi nunc, amice’. The theme of pity is never once lost sight of in the music; the ‘compassion’ motif; with which the work opens, is given to a solo string quartet, and is used throughout the work [at [13], [17], [20]] to point the dramatic tension, and also to depict the passage of time. h falling phrase suggests the suffering of the injured man; a major tonality represents the Samaritan; the end recalls the opening, as was the case in the Hymn to St. Cecilia.

The influence of Bach is also very strong in the D major ‘Overture with or without chorus, 'The Building of the House. This was the short, five minute, occasional piece written for the inaugural concert of the Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, at the twentieth Aldeburgh Festival, on 2nd June 1967. The choir declaim Psalm 127 like a chorale against a baroque-style orchestral texture. This was followed by Children's Crusade, which stands midway between another children’s work, The Golden Vanity, and the late Church Parables. The accompaniment combines two pianos, an electronic organ, and a large percussion section.



In seeking an external stimulus to which to respond, and in enlarging the range of his newly-emerging vocal style, it was inevitable that sooner or later Britten would turn to opera; particularly since for some time oratorio had been a dying form. But what was by no means inevitable in 1942 was the success that lay ahead for his first attempt. Very few operas in England had ever reached beyond their immediate occasion; many were of local interest only; most died on their feet as soon as they appeared. And this fact was not necessarily the fault of the music, which in some cases was excellent; Vaughan Williams and Delius are the chief examples. What was lacking were national roots and a vital operatic tradition. A further instance of this need of roots is provided by the American experience: American composers equally lack an operatic tradition, with the result that few indeed of the operas of American composers have held their own on the international stage. One of the very few to do so was Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), which drew on a distinctively American experience at first hand.

When Britten returned to England in 1942 with Koussevitsky’s commission to write a full-length opera, two main problems faced him. The first was to find a dramatic theme of sufficient substance for a full length work, which would also provide him with an inspiring image, and which would give scope to his creativity. On this would depend the sort of work he wrote. He only knew that he wanted it to be based on George Crabbe’s The Borough, which described Aldeburgh in the early nineteenth century. He had read an article about Crabbe by E. M. Forster [in The Listener, 29th May, 1941], and this had made a very strong impression on him. The second problem was to assess accurately the operatic situation in this country and elsewhere, and to balance idealism with feasibility; on this would depend the reception accorded to the work. As events were to prove, he was astonishingly susceptible to the needs and mood of the time, as he was to be again twenty years later when he wrote the War Requiem.

He assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the musical public were ready for a fresh start in opera: Peter Grimes provided it. Recognisable characters sang in English; the place was geographically localised on the Suffolk coast that Britten knew so well; all traditions have to start in a particular place if they are to start at all. Moreover, as in the case of Gershwin, Britten’s simple diatonic idiom was the most likely to appeal to a wide audience at that time. More sophisticated audiences than the English might have expected a more sophisticated style, but Britten’s possessed that immediate impact which compelled attention, while the idiom was well within the broad operatic tradition of Verdi, Debussy and Puccini. In addition to this, Britten had an acutely instinctive flair for stage-technique, sharpened by experience in film, theatre and radio work.

The central theme of the opera is a compassionate understanding of Grimes, who is an outsider to his society; running parallel to this is the theme of the sea, and the community who live by it and from it. The action develops on many different levels, while the dramatic effects inherent in Montagu Slater’s libretto are realised with simple, bold strokes. The overall three-act structure of the opera is supported by six interludes, which serve not merely the practical purpose of facilitating scene-changing, or marking the passage of time between acts, but also set the scene and describe the characters. In a sense they summarise the opera. The first Interlude evokes the dawn over the coast; the second unleashes the full fury of a storm, which continues with indirect reference through the next scene; the third describes a fine Sunday morning (in A major); the fourth is a Passacaglia, a description of Grimes’s divided character, with its visionary quality on the one hand and its violence on the other-the Passacaglia theme is taken from the climax moment in the previous scene, when Grimes strikes Ellen; the fifth is a picture of moonlight on a summer’s night, with little ostinati on flute and harp to suggest suffering below the peaceful surface; the sixth shows the mist that has come in from the sea, which is also the symbol of Grimes’s despair.


Over the next few years Peter Grimes was produced in the opera houses of the world: in Europe, America and the Far East. All of a sudden English opera had begun a fresh phase.

Meanwhile, with his appetite thoroughly whetted, Britten set about his next opera, the first of his chamber operas, The Rape of Lucretia. The trend of his musical thought has always been more towards solo instruments than to the full symphony orchestra; the orchestral scoring of Peter Grimes had consisted very largely of doubling. It was thus a natural choice, as well as economic necessity, which led him to the use of a chamber orchestra for this and subsequent chamber operas-Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw-as well as for his arrangement of The Beggar’s Opera. This orchestra was twelve strong: wind quartet (flute doubling piccolo and bass flute; oboe doubling cor anglais; clarinet doubling bass clarinet), horn; percussion; harp; string quintet. The recitative was accompanied by a piano.

Once again in The Rape of Lucretia a general situation, in this case the political relationship between Romans and Etruscans, forms the background to the personal drama, between Lucretia and Tarquinius. Once again, as in Peter Grimes, the events lead to suicide. The tension between the two is reflected in the motifs, which appear in both the vocal parts and their accompanying figures; this tension is further increased by their sexual relationship, which distinguishes this opera from its predecessor.

The other two chamber operas introduce fresh factors: Albert Herring introduces the element of humour, while The Turn of the Screw is a musical ghost story, after the story by Henry James. Like the Third Canticle of the same year, it is constructed in the form of a theme and variations, which are interspersed with vocal sections. The material of the story is tense and neurotic, and Britten responds in kind with a 12-note theme of angular severity. The sustained, unyielding tension is made more marked by the absence of any bass singers; the entire work is at a high tessitura. He was to take another Henry James story later for the television opera Owen Wingrave, a study in pacifism, which was first screened on 16th May, 1971,

Britten returned to full-scale opera in 1951 with a work commissioned for the Festival of Britain of that year. Billy Budd, which was first given in its original form at Covent Garden on 1st December, was in many respects a reversion to the style and manner of Peter Grimes. The libretto, by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, was an adaptation of Herman Melville’s last novel. Against the background of tough life at sea during the Napoleonic wars, when floggings and the press-gang led to mutiny at Spithead and the Nore, the story tells of how Billy Budd the innocent came to suffer death through injustice. Again, Britten’s inspiring image is that of pity. E. M. Forster has described the ‘counterpoint’ that surrounds a Melville story; the meaning is felt apart from the narrative; no simple explanation of seemingly unintelligible facts is possible. Such material is indeed the breath of life to an opera composer, since he can underwrite the words. And yet this opera lacks something of the impact of Peter Grimes. Why? The fulcrum of the plot is the Claggart-Billy relationship, and this is progressively oversimplified beyond the requirements of drama, to the point of melodrama. Claggart is all bad; Billy is all good; therefore, we are told, the one had to destroy the other.

Moreover, in spite of his admission that no simple explanation is possible of the events leading to Billy’s execution, Forster has put forward just such an explanation in the libretto, by invoking the pre Christian concept of Fate. The three chief characters all admit to their powerlessness against an overriding force of Fate.

Claggart says:

‘O beauty, O hand someness, would that I never encountered you. Would that I lived in my own world always, in that depravity to which I was born.

Having seen you, what choice remains to me?... I am doomed to annihilate you.’

Billy says:

‘I had to strike down that Jennylegs, it’s fate. And Captain Vere has had to strike me down, fate.’ Vere says: ‘I could have saved him’-but did not.

So with these somewhat unconvincing explanations the characters are reduced to puppets; neither through the drama nor through the music do they come into sharp focus. Indeed, instead of becoming the means whereby the characters live, the music is reduced to the subsidiary role of illustrating the various situations. Whereas in Peter Grimes the conflict arose within Peter’s personality, in Billy Budd the conflict is imposed, and has to be carefully explained, both in the libretto and in the music. The results of the conflict are thus merely pitiful, not tragic or ennobling. As Britten was to find later in the War Requiem, the theme of pity requires more than one dimension for its full interpretation. This work therefore lacks the spontaneous inevitability of the earlier opera. But a direct similarity with Peter Grimes is the mist which is symbolic of man’s blindness. It also frustrates the action against the French ship, and this underlines the fact that the main theme of the opera is a personal, not a military or naval one.

Two other works also owe their genesis to Covent Garden. The first was Gloriana, which in spite of its performance in the presence of the Queen on 8th June, 1953, in honour of her coronation, is one of Britten’s rare miscalculations. It is more a masque than an opera. The other was his only ballet score, The Prince of the Pagodas. But more characteristic and no less important in his output are the children’s operas. Let’s Make an Opera, an ‘Entertainment for Young People,’ was the first stage work to be presented at Aldeburgh, in 1949. The next was Noye’s Fludde, which was given in 1958; third was The Golden Vanity ‘a vaudeville for boys and piano’, which was written for the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and given by them at the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival.

But a work which stands somewhat apart from the other operas is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though written for the small Jubilee Hall at Aldeburgh, where it was first heard on 11th June 1960, the work has also been performed at Covent Garden; and it benefits considerably from the larger surroundings. It stands apart because the text was selected from Shakespeare by the composer and Peter Pears. Yet in many ways it is the first significant advance since Peter Grimes. The vitality and colour of Shakespeare’s magical comedy call forth a corresponding vitality and colour from the composer. Structurally the action takes place on three levels. first, Titania and Oberon, and their estrangement; second Lysander and Hermia, who are fleeing from Athens to avoid an undesirable marriage with Demetrius; third, the group of rustics, Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’, and their antics. The story is amply suited to musical colour; dreams and night-spells are peculiarly characteristic of this composer. Not that the work is entirely impressionistic. Indeed the whole second act is constructed round a sequence of four chords, which include the twelve notes, but in triadic form, and scored for different instrumental groups-as the chords in Billy Budd [between scenes two and three of the second act, as Captain Vere goes to tell Billy of his conviction and sentence] had been. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the happiest operatic score Britten has so far composed, and the most successful since Peter Grimes.

Very different are the later operatic works, the three ‘Parables for Church Performance’, Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, which were all played in Orford Church as part of the Aldeburgh Festivals of 1964, 1966 and 1968 respectively. These represent a quite fresh departure, because the image that this time inspired the composer came from an alien tradition, that of the Japanese No-play. He had visited Tokyo in 1956 with his friend Prince Ludwig, who has recorded the effect of the No-play [Fiftieth Birthday Symposium, (Faber, 1963)]; the extreme stylization, the slow moving pace, archaic music, all-male cast, the extreme formalism of production, even down to the costumes, masks and other effects; the rapt attention of the audience, and absence of applause; indeed this, and the legendary nature of the drama, suggested Greek tragedy. Here was a centuries-old tradition; could it be transplanted Westwards? Clearly not without radical reappraisal. Such a tradition was quite foreign to the Western theatre; but what about the Church? There was nothing resembling any contemporary Church drama; nothing since the mediaeval mystery plays, which had already sparked off certain works such as the Second Canticle and Noye’s Fludde. Could the old tradition of the mystery play be somehow brought up to date, and made a valid experience to a present-day Western audience? The particular play that Britten saw was called Sumidagawa (Sumida River) and he has described his reaction as follows: ‘The whole occasion made a tremendous impression on me: the simple, touching story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing which, with the three instruments, made up the strange music-it all offered a totally new "operatic" experience. ‘There was no conductor-the instrumentalists sat on stage, as did the chorus, and the chief characters made their entrance down a long ramp. The lighting was strictly non-theatrical. The cast was all male, the one female character wearing an exquisite mask which made no attempt to hide the male jowl beneath it. ‘The memory of this play has seldom left my mind in the years since. Was there not something-many things-to be learnt from it? The solemn dedication and skill of the performers were a lesson to any singer or actor of any country and any language. Was it not possible to use just such a story-with an English background (for there was no question in any case of a pastiche from the ancient Japanese)? Surely the mediaeval religious drama in England would have had a comparable setting - an all-male cast of ecclesiastics - a simple, austere staging in a church-a very limited instrumental accompaniment-a moral story? And so we came from Sumidagawa to Curlew River and a church in the Fens, but with the same story and similar characters; and whereas in Tokyo the music was the ancient Japanese music, jealously preserved by successive generations, here I have started the work with that wonderful plainsong hymn ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, and from it the whole piece may be said to have grown.’

The libretto was by William Plomer, who had already written the libretto of the ill-fated Gloriana, and he set the ancient Japanese story in a Christian context. A madwoman comes to be ferried across the river; on the way the Ferryman tells of a child who crossed a year previously only to die of exhaustion on the other side. The woman cries; it is her child; but she is freed from her madness at the voice of her child, and the appearance of his spirit.

The orchestra which Britten had already reduced to twelve for his chamber operas, was now reduced still further to seven, flute, horn, viola, double bass, harp, percussion, chamber organ.

Many familiar features of style occur, as well as many unfamiliar ones. The juxtaposition of different keys, canon, ground-bass are all common; and the plainchant prelude and postlude recall A Ceremony of Carols. But there the resemblance ends; the accompaniment patterns are static, more so than in the Second Canticle, the pace is extremely slow-moving. The use of chamber organ, and the comparatively free vertical combination of sounds, recall the War Requiem; but except for the prelude and postlude the composer dispenses with key signatures, and the tonality is indirect. Moreover, the instrumental parts, which are sparse, are not so characteristically independent of the voices as in other works. Some instrumental association is allowed to creep in, however; a flute, flutter-tongue heralds the mad-woman, a horn calls our attention to the Ferryman, while a glissando represents the movement of the ferry.

The experience gained from Curlew River led to The Burning Fiery Furnace, which differed in that the story was specifically part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The instruments are the same as for the first Parable, with the addition of a trombone, to give a royal colour to the instrumental sonority. Procession, lighting, costumes, movement and gesture are all an integral part of the composition and these hark back to the Japanese original [several composers in the 60s have sought to augment a basically very simple conception with such musical and visual ‘overheads’; for instance, John Tavener (see p. 312)]. But more happens than in Curlew River, and the plainchant is more integrated into the texture of the music, which otherwise is very slow-moving and similar to that of the earlier work. This begins and ends with a plainchant procession, which as before is the only part of the score bearing a key-signature; the melody Salus Aeterna is the basis of the work. As before, an Angel appears at the moment of culmination.

The third Parable, The Prodigal Son, like the other two, was also written by William Plomer. Again a familiar theme is chosen, of specifically Christian significance. The work differs from its predecessors chiefly in the fuller use made of the chorus, who represent Servants, Parasites, and Beggars. The trombone of the previous Parable is replaced by a trumpet, and the flute becomes an alto flute, changing to piccolo for the dance finale; otherwise the instrumentation and the sonority are the same. The plainchant basis is Iam lucis orto sidere, and the climax of the work this time is one of dancing and rejoicing.

An important difference however between The Prodigal Son and the two preceding Parables is that in it greater importance is given to the dramatic working out of the inner conflict. This reaches the climax with the son’s decision to return home, while forgiveness and reconciliation are the dramatic conclusion of the work. Instrumental association is used, as before, for the heightening of the expressive power of the music. The trumpet and viola represent the extrovert and introvert sides of the Son’s character; harp glissandi represent the Tempter; triads (B flat major) represent the stability and security of home.

Taken as one unit, the three Church Parables represent the three Christian virtues: Hope (Curlew River), Faith (The Burning Fiery Furnace), and Charity (The Prodigal Son).


Vocal style

The musical austerity and tonal vagueness of the three Church Parables, though compensated by a certain visual and ritualistic richness, in many ways run contrary to Britten’s practice. Distinctiveness of melodic line, strikingly recognizable colour in the accompaniment, and strict attention to the rhythmic accentuation and articulation of words, have hitherto always been the hallmarks of his vocal technique. The colour in the Parables is traditional, religious, associative rather than musical; and their somewhat meagre musical content is austerity indeed for Western ears accustomed to a more substantial diet.

But certain melodic characteristics and use of intervals have already been referred to, which are fundamental to his thought and lend distinctive colour to his vocal style. Two chief examples: the interval of the semitone expresses any sort of tension, anguish, darkness or disorder; instances from the songs include the Donne Sonnets (particularly No. 3), the Second and Third Canticles (‘Still falls the rain’ consists of Eb-D); instances from the operas include the B-Bb relationship in Billy Budd, with which the opera opens, and which is central to the tension of the musical scheme; the storm Interlude in Peter Grimes is built round the semitone; also it expresses the mad-woman’s grief in Curlew River (at [81]). There are other instances too numerous to specify. Triads, on the other hand, often in root position, are expressive of exactly the opposite: calm, decision, ‘heavenly things’. A few from the many possible instances include the last Donne Sonnet, which is the final, optimistic conclusion of that cycle. At the end of Scene I of the second Act of Billy Budd, Vere sings ‘O for the light of clear heaven to separate evil from good’, and triads suggest such a light. Later, at the end of the next scene, when he has taken the decision to tell Billy of his conviction, simple triads express this calm resolve, as well as Billy’s complete lack of any malicious or dark side to his nature. He is the very opposite of Peter Grimes. An instance from the Parables occurs at the end of The Burning Fiery Furnace, where the Angel’s music, as he sings with the chorus, assumes the repose of triads. The simplest juxtaposition of the two occurs in the Missa Brevis, where the confident mood of the Gloria is illustrated by triads on the organ, whereas the more solemn mood of the Agnus Dei is depicted by semitones throughout. This expressive use of intervals lends consistency to Britten’s vocal works of whatever period.


Orchestral and symphonic works

As Britten gradually found his characteristic voice, he wrote progressively less orchestral and instrumental music. His is not a symphonic style. The pre-war orchestral pieces, such as the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge and the Piano Concerto, belong to his formative years, and display a characteristic fluency and ingenuity; and several orchestral works date from the American period, of which the Violin Concerto and the Sinfonia da Requiem are chiefly still performed. But in a sense these works simply sum up his achievement as a composer up to then; the Sinfonia da Requiem, for instance, used material from Our Hunting Fathers [cf the Scherzo of the symphony with the Dance of Death of the earlier work].

On his return in 1942, three more instrumental works appeared before Peter Grimes; the Prelude and Fugue for Strings (1943), which was commissioned by the Boyd Neel orchestra; the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was written for a documentary film for the Crown Film Unit; and the Second String Quartet (1945), written for the Zorian Quartet [Olive Zorian later led the English Opera Group Orchestra], to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death.

After 1946 a few instrumental works have been written expressly for individual players. Viola, oboe, guitar and harp have been catered for in this way. But these pieces, along with the piece for organ, Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria, count among his slighter works. More substantial, however, are the 'cello works for Rostropovich: a Sonata, two Suites, and the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra 1963, which was the first orchestral work for almost twenty years since the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and which may be said to epitomise the features of his purely instrumental style, his absolute musical thought, unmixed with any literary or dramatic influence.

It was first played in Moscow in March, 1964, by Mstislav Rostropovich. In spite of its title, and its four movements, it is a concerto in all but name, with a virtuoso solo part, including a cadenza. The image that chiefly inspired the work was the artistry of the great Russian cellist, whose style of playing decided the nature of the themes. So the strength of the work lies in the range and colour of the solo writing, while its chief weakness is a lack of thematic or motivic development-which is the structural equivalent in instrumental music of the plot in an opera, or the words in a song.

The scheme of the work is classical; indeed, the first movement is the most extended sonata-form Britten has ever composed; but the idiom is highly chromatic, almost 12-note in places. Within an established tonality (D minor), Britten tends to use ten or eleven of the twelve notes in a phrase or group; the missing note(s) are then given a prominent place in the next phrase. Thus in the first theme of the first movement, A flat is held back until bar 8; in the second theme G is held back until the climax moment of the passage ([7] + 4). Again in the solo theme of the slow movement, eleven notes are used; the missing one (G) forms the pedal point of the orchestral accompaniment.

The two main themes of the first movement are interrelated, and contain motifs and characteristics from which later passages are derived. Features of the first D minor theme, which consists of 3-part ‘cello chords built round a wedge-like pattern of intervals, are the 2-note rhythm in bar 3, the end-of-phrase appoggiaturas from which the second theme is derived, and the prevalence of two intervals, the minor seventh and the minor third. The broad, episodic, sequential phrases lead forward to a climax (at [2]), from which a derivative bridge passage leads to the second theme at [6.] This consists of little more than semitone appoggiaturas in a parlando style, in which the blend of upward and downward movement suggests question and answer, like a song without words.

The development section is more of a meditation on the existing material; the mood of agitation and tension is largely the result of the semitone interval. Figures and phrases are repeated, not developed, while, for the recapitulation (at [I 7]) the roles of solo and orchestra are reversed. The main theme is given to the orchestra in F major, the subsidiary part, to the cellist. This is maintained for the repeat of the second theme (at [21]); and it is not until the D major coda that the ‘cello chords of the opening reappear, overlaid this time with a woodwind countersubject, taken from the first bridge passage (after [4]).

The mood of restless tension continues into the next movement, which is a very short, Mahlerlike scherzo, whose scale-like theme is also derived from the minor third interval. Scurrying semiquavers flit past, eerie, ghostlike, and lightning-quick. There is just a suggestion of a more sustained scale-theme ([32]-[34]), which provides a Trio-like contrast.

The timpani provide the rhythmic ground over which the slow movement is worked out. As in the first movement, the first theme is episodic and sequential, and is followed through to its climax (just before [52]). Built round the third, whether major or minor, it generates an elegiac intensity, mainly through chromatic tonality. The theme is offset by a filling-in accompaniment figure on the woodwind, from which in due course is derived the comparatively tenuous and loose middle section. At the recapitulation the soloist and orchestra once again change places, and t\ the main theme is allotted this time to the brass; it gains splendidly in stature as a result, while the soloist has to be content with the somewhat gray and neutral accompaniment figures. The work is after all described as a ‘symphony’, not a concerto. The climax this time is more powerful than at first, largely because the strings are held back until the last moment ([60]-3).

A short cadenza introduces the Passacaglia finale, whose D major theme is made up of four progressively lengthening phrases. This is first | announced by a solo trumpet, and is taken from the middle section of the previous movement (at [53]); there its loose construction and derivative nature were less noticeable because its function and surroundings were I subsidiary; but to bring it out into the light of day, as it were, and to give it the much more strenuous task of sustaining six variations of a Passacaglia, is a different matter altogether. Moreover, whether consciously or j unconsciously, it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to part of a certain well-known nursery rhyme [‘Three Blind Mice.’]. All these factors weaken an otherwise ingenious finale. One undaunted critic however, describes it [writing in Tempo No. 70, Autumn 1964) as the ‘affirmative resolution’ of the tension of the previous movements, which he calls the ‘emotional crux’ of what is, taken overall, a ‘disturbing work’. Some such imaginative rationale is needed if the finale is not to leave the listener with a sense of anticlimax, and if the work as a whole is to be brought onto the personal level of the listener’s awareness.

On the strength of Britten’s work so far, certain salient points stand out. His music is highly and unusually personal: that is to say, its creative impulse is his individual artistic response to an image; technical considerations, however striking, are secondary. His idiom, based on tonality, is ingenious, not new; he is not interested in novelty, abstraction or serialism, still less in the impersonal experiments of the avant-garde. So his music relies for its effect on a direct and personal rapport with the listener, at the emotional, neurotic level. If the listener can identify himself with the composer’s personal response to a poetic image, then well and good; his acceptance of the music will be total, instinctive. Twice Britten has shown, in Peter Grimes and the War Requiem, that there can be just such a wide, popular response to a contemporary composer who, judging the temper of the times correctly, speaks with a voice to which the majority can listen.

16 Peter Maxwell Davies


Starting in about the mid-fifties, a fundamental change came over the British musical scene. It arose partly from a dissatisfaction among younger musicians and composers with the traditional leanings of their elders; partly from an excitement at the currently unfolding ideas of Schoenberg, Webern and the continental avant-garde, whose work was just beginning to be heard and propagated in England at this time; partly from a desire to discover a new, more cosmopolitan style that owed nothing to neo-modalism, neo-classicism, or any other style previously favoured by English composers. The pendulum of fashion swung markedly and decisively away from the established, the traditional, and towards the new, the avant-garde, the experimental.

Starting originally among certain individual composers and teachers, and in small minority pressure groups, such as the S.P.N.M. and Morley College [See p. 156], the new trend gradually spread outwards, gathering momentum as it went, until by about 1960 it had reached the critical columns of certain magazine and newspapers, as well as the BBC. One of the London orchestras, the L.P.O., was bold enough to grasp the nettle firmly and to include the newly-discovered music in a series of concerts over several seasons; only to find, after some initial success, that the audiences for it formed but a minority of the concert-going public. Since then a more cautious, traditional policy has been followed.

This trend of fashion had both desirable and undesirable effects on public taste. While undoubtedly a fresh and much-needed stimulus, in the broadest sense, was given to the English musical scene, and a hard blow was delivered against those insular and reactionary members of it to whom any change was anathema, unfortunately at the same time a number of babies were lost with the bathwater. Like most, if not all, fashions, it dwelt on some aspects of the musical art to the exclusion of others; it presented a part of the truth as if it were the whole, and thus inevitably contained within itself the seeds of its own reaction, which was to come later.

Thus, on the positive side was felt an exciting sense of fresh discovery, development and experiment, and a breaking away from narrow parochialism into a broader, more cosmopolitan context; on the negative side an aggressive intolerance of whatever did not appear to belong within the newly-discovered serial tradition of Schoenberg and Webern. It was a case of all-or-nothing. Cliques grew up, which showed an unawareness of, or indifference to, the need for contact and artistic rapport between the composer and his audience. The breakdown of tonality was an unquestioned and assumed datum, a starting point from which the composer of ‘the new music’ set out on his voyage of discovery. The tide of serialism, which was running at its full flood in the mid-50s, duly began to ebb in the 60s, leaving behind as it did so a considerable quantity of musical flotsam and jetsam. Many were left high and dry. The goddess of fashion is indeed a capricious and fickle lady, who makes searching demands on her numerous suitors, and sometimes rewards those who succumb to her charms with nothing more than an ungrateful waywardness.

Prominent among this new school was the ‘Manchester Group’-four musicians who happened to be fellow students at Manchester between 1954 and 1956: the composers Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, and the pianist John Ogdon. All have since moved in markedly individual directions.


Peter Maxwell Davies was born in Manchester in 1934, and his forty odd compositions so far have developed along highly original and daring lines. The course of study which he pursued at Manchester University prescribed 1500-1900 as the approved limits of musical history; and this he found irksome. As far as English music was concerned, he had no sympathy for Vaughan Williams or Delius, who were held up as the accepted models. How could any pre-Schoenbergian be considered relevant for the young composer of the 50s? While at Manchester he was enthusiastic about all manifestations of new music, Eastern as well as European, and still acknowledges two works written by him then, the Trumpet Sonata, and the Piano Pieces, Op. 2, written for John Ogdon. Already in the Sonata he experimented with a rhythmic series, related to the set; while in the Piano Pieces he introduced the use of isorhythm. His starting point was Schoenberg, though he is by no means strictly confined to a 12-note series.

His first 12-note piece as such, and also the first one to use a mediaeval source (a Dunstable motet), was Alma Redemptoris Mater. This is a short, three-movement study for wind instruments (1957), which has since proved to be a fruitful storehouse, and has even influenced other composers, such as Birtwistle and Crosse.

After Manchester, he went on an Italian Government scholarship to Rome, where he studied with Goffredo Petrassi (1957/8). Here for the first time his technique was thoroughly scrutinised; every note was checked. During this time he continued to assimilate influences from all sources, and also pursued his involvement with old music of the Mediaeval and Renaissance periods, which were shortly to have such a pronounced influence on his work and style. Under Petrassi’s tutelage he wrote two student compositions in which he first showed his orchestral paces: the St. Michael Sonata for seventeen wind instruments, and a full-length orchestral composition, Prolation. Both use mediaeval formal devices, coupled with the serial style. The first piece divides the instruments into two antiphonal choirs, after the Venetian style, though the composer largely nullifies this effect by being more concerned with the horizontal line, with texture, dynamics and timbre, than with the vertical effect of the sounds in combination; this results in a coarse, unyielding texture, which occasionally lapses into a strident vulgarity. The second piece was a study in rhythm, and the temporal relationship of note values. Again, it was an attempt to apply mediaeval principles in a contemporary context. Climaxes are carefully graded according to density, dynamics, note values and so on. It is here the interest lies, rather than in the thematic material itself; indeed the motifs are very short-winded, and serve only as vehicles for the technical procedures. According to this aesthetic, what matters is not so much what you say, as how you say it. The work lasts twenty minutes-long by Webern’s standards-and was awarded the 1959 Olivetti prize in Rome. [For which one of the two judges was Petrassi himself]

In searching for his musical individuality, Davies started from the orthodox serial principle that the smallest particle should be a microcosmic representation of the complete structure. Though he may use a mediaeval melody, or part of a plainchant, as a starting point for a composition, little trace of the original appears in the finished work. For instance, it would take an acute listener indeed to pick out the Dunstable motet round which Alma Redemptoris Mater was conceived; similarly, though the St. Michael Sonata derives its material from chants from the Requiem Mass, these become lost in the overall effect.

Returning home, he taught music for three years at Cirencester Grammar School (1959-1962), where by his freshness and directness of approach he enthused even the most philistine among the pupils. Children whose ability in other academic directions might be distinctly limited, found that they could respond in a positive way to this most refreshingly unorthodox of music masters, who invited them to participate, to improvise. This was gebrauchsmusik with a difference. The most direct result of Davies’ years at Cirencester was the Christmas sequence of carols and instrumental sonatas, O Magnum Mysterium (1960). The intention of this work was to write something within the range of children but without compromising his own individual style which was just beginning to be formed. The importance of the work is that it tested the applicability and relevance of the new style; if young people could assimilate it, surely the composer might thence proceed to enlarge the scope of subsequent compositions. The instrumental sections allow for free improvisation within defined limits. The words of the carols are, needless to say, mediaeval. Both the carols and the instrumental sonatas are, by necessity, simple, and though the chordal, melodic nature of the carols is a perfect foil for the more fragmentary part-writing of the sonatas, the real climax of the work does not come until the concluding organ fantasia, which is a powerful piece, built round the first three notes of the carol theme, (F-Gb-Ab), and which builds to a shattering climax, before dying away to nothing on a solitary pedal note. For sheer originality of conception, and exploitation of the resources of the organ, as well as for such technical features as s-part pedal chords, this work is unique in the English organ repertoire.

The principles of construction worked out in O Magnum Mysterium were followed up the following year in another school piece, ‘Te Lucis ante terminum, in which the verses of the Latin evening hymn are separated by instrumental ‘verses’. Also written in 1959 were the Five Motets, in which three groups of singers and players are treated antiphonally, with considerable freedom of form and style. Davies has also written several shorter carols and choral pieces which stem from the choral style of the O Magnum Mysterium carols: simple, yet markedly individual, which appeal to the unspoilt, unspotted naivete that is in all of us, however overlaid with sophistication.

All his subsequent works tend to fall into sets of two or three compositions derived from the same basic inspiration; and thus his years at Cirencester also saw three works which owe their initial impulse to Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.

These are the String Quartet (1961), the Leopardi Fragments (1961) for soprano, contralto and instrumental ensemble, and the Sinfonia (1962). Their connection with the Monteverdi original is the same as that of Stravinsky’s Movements to a Monteverdi madrigal; in other words, distant. In the process of assimilating the numerous influences that make up his composite style, Davies has achieved, in the String Quartet, lines of greater length, and a more singing style than in the earlier St. Michael Sonata; it is a softer, more lyrical work, based on Monteverdi’s Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. The Sinfonia is concerned with the gradual process of transformation of the material. Davies thinks if not thematically, certainly with ideas of a distinct musical identity, and the two features that concerned him chiefly at this stage were a greater concern with the vertical sound, and the process whereby the contours of the music gradually evolve as the idea develops. A comparison with Stravinsky is by no means inappropriate; not only is Davies particularly impressed by Stravinsky’s later serial works, such as Movements or Threni, but like the elder composer he is highly and enthusiastically receptive to the music of numerous other periods and traditions; particularly the mediaeval, which he does not slavishly copy so much as embody into his own musical thinking. He is a neo-mediaeval composer to the same extent as Stravinsky was a neo-classical composer; the two are precisely analogous.

After leaving Cirencester, Davies went to Princeton (1962-4) on a Harkness Fellowship. This had come about through the instigation of the American composer Aaron Copland, who had heard and liked Davies’s early piano pieces, and commissioned the Ricercar and Doubles (1959), (on the mediaeval carol 'To many a well’) for the Dartmouth Festival in America. The instruments used are wind quintet, viola and 'cello (the same as in O Magnum Mysterium), but with cembalo; the work lasts for twelve minutes, in three contrasting sections, and is in direct line of descent from Alma Redemptoris Mater.

But these years reach their culmination with the remarkable group of works inspired by the sixteenth century composer John Taverner. The centre-piece of the group is the opera Taverner, which was begun as early as 1957. The two-act libretto was written by the composer, and itself makes a very characteristic composition. Each act has a very precise structure; each of its eight scenes is based on a single form, such as Renaissance dances, a motet, or a verse anthem. Apart from the highly dramatic nature of the material-the catholic musician John Taverner, accused of heresy, compromised his belief in order to save himself from the stake-the two acts form a sort of dramatic canon, the events of one being mirrored in the events of the other. While in America, Davies worked on the opera, and found out all he could of the facts about this extraordinary mediaeval musician, who held such a compelling fascination for him. The work needs to be assessed on many different levels, like Joyce’s Ulysses; there is first the hold of the mediaeval period as a whole over Davies, whose background is that of the industrial North of England; the preoccupation with death, and the archetypal nature of Taverner’s experience; the result of compromising one’s inherent beliefs, which is inevitably an inner spiritual death, in spite of the continuation of physical life. In Taverner’s case his spiritual life was represented by his music, and this died in him after he denied his faith. Just so must any composer, at any time, be true to the music, the creative force, that is in him. In an age such as ours, when doubt is almost a prerequisite for intellectual respectability, the story of John Taverner has a direct and alarming relevance. Davies starts without qualification in the direct line of the Western Christian tradition, and draws parallels between the sixteenth century and our own day. But what gives the work its characteristic and individual colour is the element of parody and blasphemy, as shown in Joking Jesus and the Black Mass. [This projected work is not yet written.]

There is no watering down of the force and impact of the drama with bourgeois respectability; the analogy with Berg’s Wozzeck is, in this respect, most striking. Musical as well as spiritual parallels are drawn: Davies has identified himself with the mediaeval aesthetic to an extent unparalleled by other British composers; far more, for instance, than Britten has identified himself with Purcell, or, in an earlier generation, Vaughan Williams did with Tallis. For Davies, as for his mediaeval model, the cantus firmus is a formal device on which to hang the structure of the work; the composer takes for granted the text associated with the plainsong melody, and interprets the meaning of it. The mediaeval In Nomine was based on the plainsong cantus firmus ‘Gloria Tibi Trinitas’, and was a free invention over this thematic/structural foundation. Just so Davies superimposes his free invention; the theme may be varied by fragmentation, by octave displacement, different instrumental colour, by rhythmic alteration, and all the contrapuntist’s armoury of resources, of which isorhythm and canon are two of the chief ones.

Round the opera, like satellites round a planet, are grouped three instrumental compositions. The First Fantasia on Taverner’s In Nomine theme was written as a ‘preparation’ for the opera; the Second Fantasia, arose from the music of the first Act, already completed by October 1963, and is a ‘comment’ on it; the Third Fantasia will be taken from the second Act. In addition to this, Davies has compiled a short (thirteen minute) instrumental suite, Seven In Nomine, in which three sixteenth-century settings of the plainsong theme are interspersed with free, contrasted settings of his own; a scheme which immediately recalls that of O Magnum Mysterium. The various pieces were written over a considerable period, and the Suite is a reflection of larger works of the same time. The last, very slow piece crystallizes and summarizes, in more static form, the harmonic character of the previous six.

The First Fantasia is short, as befits an overture, and is preceded by Taverner’s original In Nomine, taken from the Mulliner Book. It is the first work in which the composer introduces handbells, which appear frequently in his scores from now on; its style is, of necessity, more dramatic than earlier orchestral works.

The Second Fantasia is an altogether different and bigger work; it is of symphonic proportions, the largest conception since Prolation, but considerably more mature. The somewhat brash serialism of the student work is here tempered by a sense of freedom, such as is shown by the constantly evolving set, or by the whirling woodwind, starting at bar 539, which marks the central climax of the work; by a concern for the vertical sound as much as the horizontal melody, which has the effect of making the music structurally less diffuse, more tightly knit; by the deeper assimilation of mediaeval contrapuntal techniques, which are used throughout this highly complex and intricate score; also by a broader more symphonic conception, which is impelled by a dramatic momentum, originating from that highly dramatic crisis facing John Taverner at his trial; this gives the work an urgency.

It lasts forty minutes, and its thirteen sections are played without a break. Sections I-6 make roughly a sonata-form movement, with an introduction and coda; Sections 8-I0 make a Scherzo & Trio.

Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine

An analysis based on the composer’s programme-note for the first performance. (References are to the full score published by Boosey and Hawkes Ltd.)

Section 2

Section 1

(a) Bars 1-20 Introduction. The three main melodic figures are heard on solo string quartet in a slow tempo. The first figure is heard on the cello alone; the second on the viola, with a first violin counterpoint, which is its retrograde; the third, after a pause, on the second violin, with a counterpoint on Violin I, which is a varied retrograde of the second figure.

(b) Bars 21-127 A development, for full orchestra, of the introduction. The music gradually quickens, to presto (bar I13), and culminates in a fanfare for brass, with side-drums, which forms an extended ‘up-beat’ into

Section 2

Bars 128-218 Two timpani strokes herald a unison violin melody. This is followed by a ‘secondary group’, whose identities emerge from the violin melody. The section closes (bar 204) with a brief recall, varied, of the initial violin melody, with the timpani as before.

Section 3

Bars 219-446 The development section-in so far as it is legitimate to refer to ‘development’ in this work, where the material is always in a state of transformation. First, a rising figure, which starts in low strings, with double bassoon, and finishes with a reference to the Fanfare of Section I; this introduces the development proper, which starts with a chord for 4 horns, D-F sharp-E-G sharp. The intervals of this chord gradually dominate and unify the whole melodic and harmonic structure of the work. The development consists of isorhythm, mensural canon, and the superposition of elaborate musical structures on a cantus firmus; the In Nomine theme is prominently sung by the oboes (bars 415-442).

Section 4

Bars 447-504 A varied recapitulation by inversion of Section 2, starting with timpani and unison violins.

Section 5

Bars 505-538 A development of the Fanfare from Section I, on woodwind, brass and side-drum. This leads to the climax of the work so far.

Section 6

Bars 539-548 Full orchestral climax with whirling woodwind flourishes; this is an amplification of the quartet of Section I (a). The final bars (540-548, lentissimo) crystallise the harmonies of the music so far into three essential chords.

Section 7

Bars 549-607 A slow transition, with a prominent passage for flutes foreshadowing the material of

Section 8

Bars 608-759 Four varied statements of an ever-developing melody, in three parts, given to different solo woodwind instruments, accompanied by pizzicato strings. These four statements are separated by three interludes, on low strings, harp and double-bassoon, of which the chief feature is the In Nomine theme played on a solo violin, with gradually increasing width of vibrato.

Section 9

Bars 760-865 Prestissimo. Solo strings have long-held ‘cantus’ notes, referring back to Section 1, with quick woodwind figurations, bells and harp. The material is transformed in readiness for Section 10.

Section 10

Bars 866-1008 This section corresponds to Section 8, with the interludes omitted, and with transformed material.

Section 11

Bars 1009-1021 Transition. The entry, for the first time since Section 6 (very high fff), of four trumpets with bells recalls the flutes’ figure in Section 7, which becomes the harmonic basis for Section 12.

Section 12

Bars 1022-1201 Lento molto calmo. This is the longest section, and is scored for strings only, very quiet, except for built-up brass chords towards the end. It consists of four varied statements of a long melody arising out of the three main figures of Section I, with increasingly elaborate counterpoint, but always harmonically derived from Section 2. As in Section 8, these statements are separated by three interludes; the first with a solo violin against harmonics in the other strings; the second with denser texture, recalling Section 3; the third adding the harp, somewhat louder and more jagged in outline, recalling Sections 8 and 10. The fourth statement of the long melody (starting at bar 1156) is made climactic by the addition of the brass. This fades out, and leads into

Section 13

Bars 1202-1215 This final, and shortest, section is scored for woodwind alone, in pianissimo, and refers back to the opening.

The first performance of this Fantasia 1. [By the London Philharmonic under John Pritchard, 30th April 1965. The complaint that scores are too difficult is frequently heard in the dialogue between composers and conductors. Tippett’s works afford another example of this (see p. 278).] had to be delayed for a year owing to its difficulty for the orchestra. Its effect in performance is of extreme power, of orchestral virtuosity, though the use of the orchestra is always subservient to the material; the orchestration is entirely functional; the overall effect is of anguish covering a long time-span. The influence of Mahler is pervasive. It is a symphonic elaboration of certain ideas of Act I of the opera Taverner, and though the material is derived from the opera, the Fantasia has little to do with the dramatic events. The tonal divisions of the orchestra are clearly differentiated; there is for instance a considerable portion for strings only, while the tremendous tension built up round the brass, in Sections 5 and 6, is most carefully graded; yet beyond a certain level of complexity of part writing, and beyond a certain dynamic level, individual part-writing becomes lost in the overall sound.

But the work is a highly individual break-through as far as style is concerned. The post-Webern serialism, which was Davies’ somewhat theoretical and forbidding starting-point, has already been left far behind, and has been humanized, personalized, dramatized by the composer’s affinity with the mediaeval period. This affinity is on many levels-musical, aesthetic, religious, social. Fantasy, parody, a sense of fun, are as central to Davies’s musical thoughts as the strictest attention to contrapuntal detail, and the manipulation of the note-sets are to his technique.

This Fantasia sums up his technical advances up to 1964. It is not to be seen as variations on a theme, in the traditional sense; nor even as a free presentation of Taverner’s original. Rather is the work built, after the manner of the American school of serial composers, on sets which consist of anything from five to twenty notes. These are in a perpetual state of transformation; definite musical patterns and identities are established gradually, only to disintegrate. Sets are chosen more for their ability to be transformed than for any structural potential. Thus, for instance, a set may be transformed by a given interval throughout, but more often by a series of intervals, sometimes in an elaborate permutation which results in complex curves. The rhythmic cells, as well as the larger isorhythmic units, are subject to a parallel process of consistent modification. So at all times the material is subject to harmonic and rhythmic control, and passes, as it were, through a technical filter. This technique ensures that the music moves quite independently of any preconceived harmonic or rhythmic cliche; the original plainchant establishes the idiom on a melodic basis, while the common origin of the sets ensures the consistency of the material. This, at least, was the theory.

The composer’s concern was, he says, ‘to explore the possibilities of continuous thematic transformation, so the material is in a constant state of flux. The musical processes involved are perhaps somewhat analogous to the literary techniques employed by Hoffman in, say, Meister Floh, where certain people, spirits and plants are shown to be, within the context of an elaborate "plot", manifestations of the same character principle, a line of connection sometimes semantic (not a process of development!) making this clear.’

Also written in America, and somewhat akin to O Magnum Mysterium, was Veni Sancte Spiritus. This was for the choir of Princeton High School, New Jersey, who came to England in July 1964 [The same year as Rawsthorne’s Third Symphony.] with their conductor Thomas Hibbish, and performed the work at a Cheltenham Festival concert. Though much less complex than the Second Fantasia, it is no less complete a composition, and is a practical application for schoolchildren of his technique so far. It recalls Stravinsky’s Threni in more ways than one, not least in its deceptive simplicity. It is further simplified by the doubling of voices by the strings. The texture includes hemiola [3 against 2], mirror canon, inversion, diminution and hocket.

During his stay in Princeton, Davies was able to see at first hand something of the musical situation in America, and in particular the isolation of the young American composer from the generality of his society. Certain salient features were particularly apparent to him: that America had inherited the legacy of Schoenberg more than Vienna or any other European country; that Princeton could boast a concentration of talent exceptional even by American standards, epitomized in such musicians as Roger Sessions and his pupil Milton Babbitt; that the ‘contemporary problem’ facing the young American composer found its two extreme polarities in the mathematical precision of Babbitt on the one hand, and the music-less licence of John Cage on the other, whose notoriety-value is a sure sign of the fundamental decline in the true general musicality of American [and European] society. Davies’s comments are both shrewd and highly relevant for the post-Schoenberg English composer, who also faces an unsettling situation.

In spite of offers for him to remain in America, Davies preferred to return to England. He has always been accepted, even by those who are antipathetic to his music, as one of the most prominent, certainly the most articulate composer of his age-group; he has always found his practical services, as lecturer or performer, much in demand. In 1965 he lectured in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and also contributed to a Summer School at Wardour Castle in Wiltshire. His compositions reflect these various activities; for the Wardour Castle course he wrote Ecce manus tradentis; for a group of young singers and instrumentalists in Sydney, Australia, he wrote The Shepherd’s Calendar. [In Tempo No. 72 (Spring 1965)]

In 1966 he was Composer in Residence at the University of Adelaide in Australia; he has also visited Canada and America, appeared in some television broadcasts to schools, and, most important of all, founded, in May 1967, together with Harrison Birtwistle, the Pierrot Players, a highly accomplished group of young instrumentalists. It is specifically for this group, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, that a number of works have been written since 1967.

The works composed since 1964 exploit those veins previously opened up, and also discover new ones; for instance, those of parody and distortion, of mediaevalism, of dramatic presentation. Though the influences interact, a group of compositions whose chief characteristic is that of dramatic treatment includes Hymnos (1967), Antechrist (1967) and Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969); a group whose aim is primarily distortion or parody includes Revelation and Fall (1966), L’Homme armé (1968), and the orchestral piece St Thomas Wake-Foxtrot for orchestra (1969). Several lightweight works act as pendants or preludes to the other large compositions; for instance Stedman Doubles, and its partner Stedman Caters; and the Purcell realisations.

Antechrist was played at the beginning of concerts by the Pierrot Players [Duncan Druce, violin and viola; Alan Hacker, clarinet; Jennifer Ward Clarke, ‘cello; Stephen Pruslin, piano; Judith Pearce, flute, piccolo; Barry Quinn, percussion; also Mary Thomas, soprano. In December, 1970 the ensemble was re-named The Fires of London], like an overture. It stems from the opera Taverner, in which the mediaeval Antechrist concept plays a significant part. Starting with and from the thirteenth century motet ‘Deo confitemini-Domino’, the same ‘transformation’ technique is employed as in the works of the Taverner group.

Revelation and Fall, however, which was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, introduces a fresh element. It is more experimental, more grotesque, more recognisably avant-garde, and more reliant on visual effects than anything previously written. It represents, the composer says, an ‘extension’ of his composition technique, and is correspondingly more complex in form. The sado-masochistic imagery of the German words by George Trakl, and the specially-made percussion instruments, all contribute to make this a transitional, experimental work, whose technical basis is one of progressive distortion. The religious parody recalls Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Interestingly, the work was declared unplayable in America, and was first played at a Macnaghten concert in February 1968. It led to Eight Songs for a Mad King. This also contains a strong element of parody: but its conception is chiefly dramatic and it continues to exploit certain ‘extreme regions of experience’ already suggested by Revelation and Fall. The flute, clarinet, violin and cello, apart from their independent function, also represent the bull finches that the mad King, George III, was trying to teach to sing. The percussion represents the King’s ‘keeper’. Davies, as usual, takes his musical quotations from far and wide, including Handel’s Messiah. The composer describes his intention in these words:

In some ways, the work is a collection of musical objects borrowed from many sources, functioning as musical ‘stage props’, around which the reciter’s part weaves, lighting them from extraordinary angles, and throwing grotesque and distorted shadows from them, giving the musical ‘objects’ an unexpected and sometimes sinister significance. For instance, in No. 5, ‘The Phantom Queen’, an eighteenth century suite, is intermittently suggested in the instrumental parts, and in the Courante, at the words ‘Starve you, strike you’, the flute part hurries ahead in a 7:6 rhythmic proportion, the clarinet’s rhythms become dotted, and its part displaced by octaves, the effect being schizophrenic. In No. 7, the sense of ‘Comfort Ye, My People’ is turned inside out by the King’s reference to Sin, and the ‘Country Dance’ of the title becomes a fox-trot. The written-down shape of the music of No. 3 becomes an object in fact-it forms a cage, of which the vertical bars are the King’s line, and the flute (bullfinch) part moves between and inside these vertical parts.

The climax of the work is the end of No. 7, where the King snatches the violin through the bars of the player’s cage and breaks it. This is not just the killing of a bullfinch-it is a giving-in to insanity, and a ritual murder by the King of a part of himself, after which, at the beginning of No. 8, he can announce his own death.

As well as their own instruments, the players have mechanical bird-song devices operated by clockwork, and the percussion player has a collection of bird-call instruments. In No. 6-the only number where a straight parody, rather than a distortion or a transformation, of Handel occurs, he operates a didjeridoo, the simple hollow tubular instrument of the aboriginals of Arnhem Land in Australia, which functions as a downward extension of the timbre of the ‘crow’.

L’Homme armé’ began as an exercise-the completion of an incomplete anonymous fifteenth century Mass on the popular song ‘L’Homme armé’. While working on this, the composer somewhat disarmingly admits, ‘other possibilities suggested themselves’. The work is a progressive splintering of what is extant of the fifteenth century original, with magnification and distortion of each splinter, through many varied stylistic ‘mirrors’, finishing with a dissolution of it in the last section.

Like L’Homme armé, and the earlier Hymnos for clarinet and piano, the two works written round a bell-peal also fall into nine sections in groups of three. Stedman Doubles, first played at a Redcliffe concert in May 1968, is scored for a fuller instrumental ensemble. The sections in the latter are so short, however, as to be more like a succession of ‘points’ in a seventeenth-century Fantasia.

The Purcell realizations were a flexing of his orchestral muscles for a large piece to follow, St. Thomas Wake. In the case of the Purcell Fantasia, the ground bass is allotted to the bass clarinet, while the free upper parts suggest the shrill brilliance of a Baroque chamber organ. In the case of the Two Pavanes, this popular sixteen-seventeenth century dance form is re-interpreted in terms of the correspondingly popular dance-form of the twentieth century, the foxtrot. The orchestral work, commissioned by the City of Dortmund and first heard there in June 1969, is a highly characteristic treatment, for orchestra which is set against a small, separate band, of the St. Thomas Wake Pavan of the seventeenth-century English composer John Bull.

Worldes Blis, which was first heard at Cheltenham in 1969, also pursues the ‘transformation’ technique, this time at an extremely slow tempo. But the outstanding work of that year was for dancer and small instrumental group, Vesalii Icones. Here Davies combines his Christian mediaevalism, his fondness for parody and pastiche, and for working on different ‘levels’, with a fresh dimension-that of the modern dance. At the first performance, on 9th December 1969, this was brilliantly realised by William Louther [Who is associated with the London Contemporary Dance Company, an offshoot of the Martha Graham School]. What is new about this work is not so much the music itself, which is sometimes very simple, but the overall conception, the three ‘layers’ of meaning and experience.

Davies bought a facsimile edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) by Andreas Vesalius, and the idea came to him of making a set of fourteen dances, based on the illustrations to this book. Later came the idea of superposing the Vesalius images on the fourteen stations of the Cross (slightly modified to include the Resurrection), and this was the direct stimulus to composing the work.

The processes of working on three levels of musical experience, which he had just used in St Thomas Wake-Foxtrot for Orchestra, are in this work not only present in the music, but, more importantly, the dancer has a parallel set of superpositions:

1 The Vesalius illustrations

2 The Stations of the Cross

3 His own body.

The three levels in the music, namely plainsong, ‘popular’ music, and Davies’s own, derived from the other two, are very much fused together, and rarely emerge as separate identities.

Each dance starts with the body-position of the Vesalius illustration, to the sound of the turning of a wheel of small jingles and bells in the band; a ritual significance of bell-signals occurs in several other works. The dancer then moves to express the parallel ‘station’, but the dance is not an attempt to act-out the Vesalius drawing or the ‘station’; it is an abstract from both, in which the dancer explores the technical possibilities suggested by the Vesalius illustration, in the light of the ritual and emotional experience suggested by the ‘station’, in terms of his own body. Similarly the music is not an attempt to ‘illustrate’ in a traditional way the movements or moods of the dancer, but it works out its own interrelationships and cross-references.

In the last Dance the Christ-story is modified. It is the Antechrist-the dark ‘Double’ of Christ, of mediaeval legend, indistinguishable from the ‘real’ Christ-who rises from the tomb, and puts his curse on Christendom to all eternity. Davies’s point is a moral one-to distinguish the false from the real, and not to be deceived by appearances.

Vesalii Icones is a particularly clear example of the working of Davies’ musical intelligence. To the purely abstract, technical processes of a post-Webern style, he adds the humanizing dimension of the mediaeval tradition-with its fervently personal and ever-present religious beliefs, which Davies has made so much his own-as well as other contemporary ideas of his own devising, such as the dance. Thus he achieves a highly individual, multi-dimensional interpretation of that art-content, which to some extent every composer needs to put into his work, if it is to be relevant to a sophisticated contemporary audience, and not merely of academic interest only, or parasitic on another tradition-which is the case with a high proportion of avant-garde works-and without which it will remain coldly clinical, and lack that expressive warmth, for which contrapuntal skill or technical expertise, however excellent, are not by themselves a sufficient substitute.

Thus with each succeeding work Davies encroaches into fresh territory. Taking his works as a whole up to this point, when he is still in his thirties, his first works reached their culminating point in the Taverner group, and in particular the Second Fantasia. After this his style may be assessed by the extent to which he assimilates the old mediaeval styles; they may be simply laid alongside his own, as in Seven In Nomine; or parodied as in I,’Homme armé; or fused together and integrated as in Antechrist; or abandoned in favour of something new, as in Revelation and Fall; or blended, by parody and pastiche, with later styles, like a photograph which has been doubly, or trebly exposed, as in Vesalii Icones. There is little doubt that sooner or later he will make use of electronic effects as he began to do in L’Homme armé; but Davies is anything but an aleatoric composer. Everything he writes is intentional, and thoroughly calculated.

17 Peter Racine Fricker


Few composers have experienced quite such a cruel reversal of fortune as Peter Racine Fricker. Fashion, it would seem, has used him almost as her plaything, to take up or discard at whim. By 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, Fricker’s position already seemed assured; quite remarkably so for a composer just turned thirty. Prizes, performances and commissions came his way in impressive profusion. He was the first young composer to emerge in England after the war with a mature and original technique which all could detect; during the 50s his reputation spread and became international.

Yet within the space of ten years, his name has progressively disappeared from London concerts. In 1964 he left to take up a teaching post at Santa Barbara, California; and when in 1970, in his fiftieth year he was invited by the Redcliffe Concerts to return for a concert of his work-his first visit to England for some six years-the event passed unnoticed except by a handful of friends and former colleagues. To the majority of concertgoers his name meant little or nothing, and his music was unfamiliar. Rarely can a musician of such marked ability have experienced such indifference from his contemporaries, having first been recognised by them [Apart from several academic honours, he was made an Honorary Doctor of Music of Leeds University (1958), and he was granted the Freedom of the City of London (1962), and the Order of Merit, West Germany (1965)].

To describe is easier than to explain. Was his music shallow-rooted? Certainly it would appear that it never laid a firm hold on the public ear. Or did he perhaps pay the price of many pioneers who, having opened new paths, are then required to give place to those who follow? Certainly his name was already established before the fashionable wave of serialism reached its peak in the later 50s. By then he could no longer qualify as a ‘young composer’; indeed, the same could be said of his contemporaries, Iain Hamilton and Humphrey Searle. Musicians younger than he were already being swept into prominence on that particular floodtide. Or again, did he suffer even unwittingly from the lack of any first generation Schoenbergian composers in this country? He had nothing to fall back on, as far as that tradition was concerned. Yet his musical thought has, among other things, a strong element of Schoenberg’s style, particularly in its complex contrapuntal character; and in becoming Matyas Seiber’s pupil he was following his true instinct. Or again, does his music, serious and well-wrought as it is, and as it was required to be by the avant-garde of the 1950s, for that very reason contain little or no appeal to the avant-garde of the 1960s, whose taste is more inclined to the experimental, the trivial or the aleatoric?

Born in London in 1920, he was at the Royal College of Music, where he studied counterpoint and composition under R. O. Morris, and organ under Ernest Bullock. An interest in the organ has- remained with him ever since, which is unusual among contemporary composers. This formative period was interrupted by five years’ service in the R.A.F. (1941-6), after which he returned to study privately under Matyas Seiber (1947-8). By this time his musical curiosity was increasing, his developing skill as a composer creating a psychological vacuum which needed to be filled. And Seiber supplied what was needed at this stage, with his breadth of experience, and his insistence on ‘Is this what you really mean?’ Thus, Fricker’s naturally thick, richly scored, freely atonal style became subjected to self-criticism. And the pupil in return helped his teacher in many other ways, by copying, by assisting with the Dorian Singers, the choir which Seiber formed. Fricker wrote for them occasionally. It may well be that virtue was culled from necessity in these early post-war years. Copying and arranging music can provide a very good groundwork in orchestration; you can learn excellent lessons in practical instrumentation, in a more direct way than is possible from more conventional classwork.

Although his first published work was Op. 2, Four fughettas for two pianos, it was the Wind Quintet (1947) that first brought his name to a wide public. Chance played a considerable part in this, since more important than the Clements Memorial Prize, which it won, was the fortuitous fact that the composer had attended the same school [St Paul’s School, London.] as Dennis Brain, the horn-player, who broadcast the work with his Ensemble. The Quintet thus gained wider acceptance than would otherwise have been the case.

Another most important, even decisive factor in Fricker’s musical development was his association with Morley College, which in those years was one of the most fruitful and active centres of musical activity. He met Tippett, who was then its Director of Music. He sang in the choir under Tippett, and occasionally acted as rehearsal pianist for him. He eventually took over as Director from Tippett in 1953. He wrote various pieces for Morley College, such as The Comedy Overture (1958) and choral works, and through Morley College he came into contact with a number of eminent and important musicians-notably the conductor Walter Goehr, the violinist Maria Lidka, and the Amadeus Quartet. The latter played his First String Quartet, Op. 8 (1947), after its first performance at a C.P.N.M. [Committee for the Promotion of New Music (see p. 364)] concert in September 1949, and this work also helped to draw much attention to the composer. In one movement, dedicated to Seiber, it was selected for the Brussels I.S.C.M. Festival in 1950. So it was that, at this time, Fricker appeared as the most promising of young avant-garde composers. This impression was further strengthened when his First Symphony, Op. 9 (1948-9), was awarded a Koussevitzky Prize. The result of this award was a performance at the official new music forum, the Cheltenham Festival, in 1950, and this was later followed by performances abroad by Schmidt-Isserstedt, Scherchen and various other conductors. Though the first movement is very densely contrapuntal, and includes a 7-part fugal section in its development (a legacy from R. O. Morris), the slow second movement and finale are undeniably effective. With characteristic seriousness of intent and spaciousness of line, Fricker has found his idiom to be suited to symphonic expression, and he has since exploited this fact to the full. He is not among those composers who doubt the validity, and the continued validity, of the symphony orchestra. Not only does his music derive colour from the instruments themselves, but he enjoys working with orchestral musicians. He has frequently conducted his own works. Of his orchestral compositions, the one that has since found the securest place in the concert repertory, and that has been played the most, is the Dance Suite, Op. 22. This piece was conceived like a pas de deux from an imaginary ballet, and its three sections all use dance rhythm, though no specific dance form.

His music has a toughness which is continental-based, Schoenberg-influenced; a seriousness which recalls Hindemith; yet he belongs to no school. He feels the necessity for melodic lines, and recognizable thematic patterns, though for him the rhythmic impulse matters just as much as the notes. Later he was to evolve not so much a note-row as a pitch-row, particularly in piano pieces.

Two violin works followed the symphony; the First Violin Concerto, Op. 11, and the highly concentrated Violin Sonata, Op. 12, both written for Maria Lidka. The concerto was awarded an Arts Council Festival of Britain prize in 1951. Again, the composer is quite content to express his ideas, however severe and astringent, within the established three movement concerto structure. The work started as a double concerto for violin and harp, and indeed the harp still plays a prominent part in the orchestral score.

From this point onwards, Fricker’s work was largely decided by commissions. He wrote what was asked for. First came a commission from the City of Liverpool, also in connection with the Festival of Britain, for the Second Symphony, Op. 14. This was first played on 26th July 1951, under Hugo Rignold, who has always been the champion of many a British composer. [in the eight seasons (1961-1968) when he directed the Birmingham Orchestra, Rignold made a point of including many British works, of different generations. His premieres included works by Hoddinott, Simpson, Maconchy, Whettam, Wellesz, Fricker, Musgrave, and Crosse]. The symphony is unconventional in so far as each of its three movements is a different sort of rondo. It is heavily scored, which benefits the sweeping, driving finale, and while not so contrapuntal as the first symphony, it makes plentiful use of canon; for example, at the opening of the slow movement. The texture is thick, luxuriant, and the impetus of the music is derived solely from the composer’s treatment and variation of his themes, and the development of their inherent potential. If it is severely intellectual, based on intervals, it is also polished, refined and warm, full of contrast. He relies on nothing outside the scope of the standard orchestra.

The Second String Quartet, Op. 20, like the first, was written for the Amadeus Quartet, and like the sonata it begins and ends with a slow movement. The Allegro which forms the first movement is unusual in that an independent subject appears as a fugue in the development section, and combines later with the material of the exposition. The second movement is a scherzo, direct in its effect and unproblematical, while the climax of the third movement is derived from the material of the first. Unusually for Fricker, the work is based on two keys, E flat minor, and F sharp.

Concertos and concertante works followed. The Concertante No. 2 for three pianos, strings and timpani, a short work, whose four movements follow without a break, was intended as a balance for the three-piano concerto of Bach, and was introduced at a festival at Hovingham in Yorkshire, also in 1951. The composer conducted, as he has in the case of several others of his works; for instance, he conducted his Litany for double string orchestra, Op. 26, at a Promenade Concert in 1955, and his Tenor Cantata, Op. 37, at an Aldeburgh concert in 1962; there are several other occasions.

The Viola Concerto was written for William Primrose, who first played it at the 1953 Edinburgh Festival; the Second Violin Concerto (Rapsodia Concertante), which was written for Henryk Szeryng, was first heard at a concert in Rome in 1954. This is richer and more elaborate than the first, and also differs in form. Its first movement is a five section rondo, its second is a cadenza for the soloist alone, while the finale is a dance, of furious energy, which uses a huge percussion section. The rhythmic element is also particularly prominent in the two concerted works for piano and orchestra. The Piano Concerto, Op. 19, written for Harriet Cohen, was first heard in March 1954. Octaves are plentifully used in the outer movements, while the highly pianistic chromaticism of the central movement, an Air and Variations, is built largely in accordance with what fits the hands. Later, the short Toccata for piano and orchestra, Op. 33, was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for a piano competition in May 1959, and the composer therefore calls for a display technique. Particularly characteristic of his piano style, as well as of his contrapuntal method of working-out, is the central Adagio section.

By the time of the Third Symphony, Op. 36, which was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and first heard under John Pritchard in 1960, Fricker’s personal characteristics begin to mature and evolve. His style consists primarily of an extreme richness, subtlety and profusion of thematic material, and a contrapuntal chromaticism. In this symphony, however, the composer first uses a process of transformation, whereby the theme-pattern is used not merely as a row of notes, but also as a chord, and a harmonic shape, or pitch-pattern, round which the contrapuntal texture is worked. Intervals are used as links in the structure of the material. Meanwhile the symphony is in other respects more conventional and comparable with the First Symphony; its four movements and its orchestration are classical. Apart from the timpani, no percussion appears-a distinct reaction against the trends of the current avant-garde in 1960. Each movement is expressive of a single mood: but a mood that is abstract, not personally felt.

This process of transformation of the material is continued in the Fourth Symphony, Op. 43, as well as in other works since 1960. Like the Second Symphony, it offers a different solution to the symphonic problem. The symphony was commissioned by the Feeney Trust, and played by the Birmingham Orchestra under Hugo Rignold in 1967. It may be less intellectually demanding than its predecessor; its expressive content, however, is more original, more concentrated. This, no doubt, is partly due to its being written in memory of Matyas Seiber, who had died in 1960. Fricker makes partial use of the note-row of his teacher’s Third String Quartet, as well as the chord structure of Permutazioni a Cinque for wind quartet, from which he also derived the idea of the pitch-patterns of his soprano songs O Long Desirs, Op. 39. This chord is constructed by progressively increasing the intervals between the notes by one semitone, starting with the fourth at the top.

An example of Fricker’s use of this principle can be seen in the third and fifth sections of the symphony. The 3-note groups follow one another at intervals which increase by a semitone each time. The symphony is in one movement, lasting thirty-five minutes, and its continuous line falls into ten contrasting sections round a central Adagio elegiaco. This structure had been already used in the finale of the Third Symphony, as well as the Viola Concerto (1953). These sections alternate fast and slow, and use short cadenzas for solo instruments. Each section expresses one mood, and the material, which is constantly transformed, is taken partly from the interval pattern announced as an introduction at the opening of the symphony, partly from other thematic ideas in the first few sections. Nowhere is Fricker’s use of intervals more clearly shown than in the symphony. Each section presents a different view of the material; the whole work thus has both an internal consistency and an overall unity, which are as original as they are compelling. The central Adagio is the longest section beginning and ending with a solo oboe, and developing an intensity of considerable force in two climax-points. The final section is also Adagio, and the symphony finishes very quietly. It is understandable that Fricker should himself consider this work to be the most satisfactory, from all points of view.

First Symphony (1949)

Orchestra including piano and harp.

4 movements:

1 Sonata form

2 Slow

3 Scherzo (minuet style)

4 modified sonata form

Second Symphony (1949)

Fourth trumpet, otherwise normal

3 movements, avoiding sonata form.

All the movements are a different sort of rondo.

Third Symphony (1960)

4 movements:

classical orchestra, with bass clarinet. Timpani has a solo part.

1 Sonata form

2 Slow

3 Scherzo (presto, with a Trio in canon)

4 Sectional, beginning and ending maestoso, with a central Adagio.

Fourth Symphony (1966)

Normal, with possibly extra strings for solo and Timpani has solo part.

1 movement 10 sections, round a central Adagio (form derived from divisi parts. finale of Third Symphony)

Fricker’s Fourth Symphony was finished in California in 1966, two years after his move to America. He had always been an extensive traveller-more so, indeed, than most British composers. During the war he spent three years in India, and after the war, in the 50s, he was a frequent visitor to many countries in Europe. He saw himself as a member of the European musical community. His viewpoint, as well as his style, was thus the reverse of insular. For example, already in 1935 he was acquainted with Berg’s Wozzeck, as well as works by Krenek, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and others. Moreover, he found the lot of a composer in London far from satisfactory; his work there consisted of a multiplicity of various engagements, which he found unnecessarily time-consuming, apart from leading to an underlying lack of security. He taught at the Royal College of Music from 1955; since 1953 he had directed the music at Morley College; he examined, lectured, conducted, occasionally broadcast. He wrote a number of commercial film scores, and incidental music for radio performances, mainly in the later 50s; also two radio operas. But generally speaking, as far as his acceptance as a composer was concerned, he found that considerable indifference which faced all composers; performances were largely a matter of luck. And so it is not surprising that when he received an offer from the University of California to become a member of the music staff at Santa Barbara, originally for a year, he should be predisposed in its favour. It meant one job in one place; he would be employed specifically as a composer and teacher, and time-consuming activities peripheral to that would thus become unnecessary; he would have plenty of time for the sustained, thoughtful pursuance of his work. Moreover, the Music Faculty contained several excellent performers who would be his working colleagues-which is an almost irresistible bait to any composer.

So in 1964 he moved to America-though he retains a British passport. Starting with the completion of the Fourth Symphony, the works of his American period mark a fresh phase. They include several major commissions: the Three Scenes, Op. 45, which was written for the California Youth Symphony; the Magnificat, Op. 50, for soprano, alto and tenor soli and orchestra; and the Concertante No. 4, Op. 52, for flute, oboe, violin and strings, which he conducted himself at Santa Cruz University.

But in addition to these larger works, and as a result of the circumstances prevailing at Santa Barbara, he has also written for solo instrumentalist or duo teams; the Viola Fantasy, Op. 44, for Peter Mark; the Piano Episodes, Op. 51 and 58, for Landon Young; also the short motet for male voices and piano, Ave Maris Stella, Op. 48, and the songs for soprano and harp, The Day and the Spirits, Op. 46.

These solo works mark a fresh departure for Fricker. Their thinner texture allows the rich, condensed quality of his characteristic musical thoughts to be more fully expressive than is the case in works involving more instruments. Thickness of contrapuntal writing is subject to its own law of diminishing returns, as far as the directness of expressive quality is concerned. For instance, it is by no means necessarily true to say that a passage which develops a thematic pattern in eight parts is, therefore, eight times as effective as a passage which simply states the theme in a single voice. Rather the reverse: too much density of musical undergrowth may well choke the flower, and prevent it from blossoming naturally, to its fullest extent.

So the solo works of Fricker’s American period mark a highly expressive and fruitful phase of development. The orchestral works of this time, starting with the Fourth Symphony, also use a thinner texture, and profit as a result. Certain technical innovations are introduced as well. For instance, in the Three Arguments for bassoon and cello, Op. 59, a new method of notation is used; one part steady and even, the other variable. The Episodes for solo piano also introduce a fresh approach to the use of a pitch-row, and follow on from the earlier Twelve Studies, Op. 38-in particular the second study, which uses the intervals of the minor second and fourth. But this remarkable work, more complete than earlier piano pieces, is much more than its title might imply; and though the twelve sections may be analysed technically in terms of canon, inversion, and other contrapuntal tricks of the trade, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. What is effectively playable on the piano is for Fricker largely determined by the shape of the human hand and by the disposition of the keys, and these two factors always remain constant. Even Stockhausen and the avant-garde cannot escape this reality. Fricker’s Twelve Studies is a rich workshop of pianistic ideas; it contains, in summary form, his method of developing thematic patterns and varied rhythms from progression of intervals; it is bound together by a virtuosity which is entirely original, yet which by no means excludes the traditional techniques associated with the romantic period of piano music; it shows an awareness of piano colour and sonority which few British composers can equal; it was a work containing formative factors on which the composer drew in later works.

After the Twelve Studies, the next piano pieces were sets of Episodes, written for his colleague at Santa Barbara, Landon Young. Episodes I dates from 1967/8, Episodes II from 1969. Each makes use of a mosaic form, and is built up from a number of short sections. The first piece, generally delicate in texture, fragments four main sections, and arranges the piece round a central scherzo. The second, more aggressive and dramatic, is constructed from pieces of five sections, and the central sixth one is a recitative.

In addition to the piano works, Fricker’s keyboard writing includes several important pieces for the organ. In spite of the closed, narrow view of the organ prevailing in this country, he has always felt an affinity with the instrument; partly as he studied it while a student, partly because the contrapuntal nature of the organ is so much in keeping with his own style. Also, the possibilities of tonal contrasts, echo effects and so on, are much to his liking. An early sonata remains unpublished, but in several short pieces he achieves a marked individuality, notably in the Pastorale. Two works written for diametrically opposed instruments, yet both equally effective, are the Ricercare, Op. 40, and the Toccata, Gladius Domini, Op. 55. The Ricercare was first played on the restored Schnitger organ in St. Michaelskerk, Zwolle, in Holland-one of the historical treasures of Europe, which Fricker once spent a day in discovering for himself. The bright and glittering tone-quality of the full ensemble, and the highly characteristic solo stops, appealed to him most strongly. But the stop-knobs are so inconveniently placed at the side of the player that, without an assistant, alterations of registration in the course of a movement are almost impossible. Therefore, the stops required in the different divisions of the organ have to be set at the beginning of a piece, and then left unaltered. This principle of terraced dynamics was used by Fricker in his Ricercare. The Toccata, however, was written for Alec Wyton, the organist of St. John’s Cathedral, New York, whose enormous instrument, with electric, not mechanical, action, boasts a State Trumpet stop [on 100 inches pressure, at the opposite end of the cathedral to the main organ], which is duly allowed for by the composer in his brilliant, predominantly chordal, Toccata.

His most recent organ piece, finished on Christmas Day, 1969, is the Praeludium, Op. 60, which was commissioned by the Anglo-Austrian Music Society, and written for the Viennese organist, Anton Heiller. This virtuoso work, which somewhat belies its title, is as consummate a piece of organ craftsmanship as the Twelve Studies was in the case of his piano output. The tonal centre is D, and the structure is that of a continuous suite, whose contrasted sections are evocative of a particular musical mood, derived from the opening motif, or aspect of organ sonority. The motif is an irregular sequence of rising fourths, with implied triadic chord formations. This leads to a chordal section, maestoso. A quick, barless passage manualiter, Allegro flessibile, largely with just a single line of notes, leads again to the more measured pulse of the maestoso chords; these are then followed by the slow movement, in trio style, with highly expressive antiphonal recitative-like phrases between manuals and pedals. Fricker’s use of the material in this section leads to fewer tonal acerbities than in the earlier part.

The scherzo, which follows without a break, is very quiet, though light and quick, and uses an added rhythm technique with a 1/16 note (semiquaver) metre. Chords, built largely from the fourths of the opening, alternate with staccato, fanfare-like arpeggios. A reprise of the opening (mf) in varied form, gradually builds up again to the maestoso chords, ff, which this time are given their head, and the work finishes with full organ, over a D pedal.


His choral output so far centres round two main works; the oratorio, The Vision of Judgement, Op. 29, and the Magnificat, Op. 50. The first of these was commissioned by the Leeds Centenary Festival, 1958, which may be said to be one of the two remaining bastions of the old oratorio tradition-the other being the Three Choirs Festival. Since Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) added a fresh dimension to this tradition, namely a dimension of dramatic movement and physical energy, it could hardly continue as before, though there have been many attempts, and several commissions, designed to prolong its life. None has been, or could be, wholly successful, and Fricker’s work is no exception. Evolution cannot be halted; the contemporary choral tradition has moved away from the old large-scale oratorio.

That Fricker is himself aware of these developments in the choral tradition, as well as the need for a structural unity, whether of mood or action, is shown in his own writing about The Vision of Judgement [Hines, ‘The Composer’s Point of View’, pp. 81-88]. His own words are:

I was conscious of the need for a satisfactory overall musical form as well as a logical poetic one. The final shape is of two main movements (or acts, if the work is considered dramatically), divided by an interlude, an unaccompanied chorus.

I have tried to give the work an overall unity by dividing it into scenes and set-pieces in somewhat the same way that Berg did in Wozzeck. These scenes are separated from each other either by the piled-up-fifths motive of the beginning, expressive of despair and anguish, or by the Latin interpolations. In only one case are two scenes run together; these are the second and third of the second part, the duet and the final chorus. In addition to sharing thematic material they also share a common tempo. The quaver remains at a constant speed, so that 3/8 (allegro), 3/4 (moderato) and 3/2 (maestoso) are, so to speak, geared together. Most of the 3/4 sections feature a saraband-like rhythm which is intentionally used as a unifying factor.


Fricker was asked for a piece on a big scale, and his oratorio, like Walton’s, includes organ and full brass. After working with a choir at Morley College, he knew the capabilities, and the limitations, of choral singers. The text that he chose, which was adapted from ‘Christ’ by the eighth century Anglo-Saxon, Cynewulf, was one he had known since schooldays. He interspersed the sections of the poem-powerful, dramatic and challenging-with sections of the traditional Latin Requiem, a device that was used by Britten in his War Requiem four years later. Throughout the oratorio Fricker uses the orchestra independently of the singers, not merely as accompaniment, and the idiom is tonally simpler than in his instrumental and symphonic works. The other major choral work, the Magnificat, Op. 50, dates from his period in America. It was commissioned for the centenary of the University of California, and written in 1968.


Any overall assessment of Fricker’s style-if indeed this is possible in the case of a fifty-year-old composer whose creative output is still in full spate-must begin by eliminating those factors which it does not possess. In spite of his Continental orientation, his style is not neo-Bartok, neo-Schoenberg, or neo-Hindemith. Through his connection with Matyas Seiber, it was immediately assumed at one time that he was heavily indebted to Bartok. This is not the case. Seiber did not attempt to force his pupils into the acceptance of any one particular style, or of any single composer; he preferred to discover what each individual pupil appeared to need most in order to develop his own style. Indeed, the strength of Fricker’s style, as shown in such works as the Twelve Studies or the Fourth Symphony, is precisely the personal use of highly chromatic material. He cannot be attached to any school. He is not, for instance, a serialist, though a serial process is involved in certain of his later works, such as the Episodes for piano.

Nor does he follow trends or fashions, which exert such a force over many British composers. He has seen several such movements come and go since 1945, but he has remained remarkably consistent in the pursuit of his own idiom and style. Up to about 1950 it was the fashion among those composers whose business it was to be ‘contemporary’, to write athematic music. This trend soon died out, to be replaced by another. But Fricker has never followed this path, nor swerved from his purpose. Fashions are not, for him, a sufficient basis for a composer’s style. After his 1970 London concert it was suggested [in The Guardian. 24th April 1970] that his music had no wide appeal because he was writing for the contemporary music audience of twenty years previously, not for that of the present moment. While it is true that he in no way subscribes to the trend of the 1970 avant-garde, which is either towards electronic music, or towards aleatoricism, or both, nevertheless it is equally true that neither did he subscribe to the trend of the 1950 avant-garde, which was towards athematicism and dodecaphony. His music cannot be so easily categorized, nor so summarily dismissed.

Also to be excluded from his creative thinking are all direct uses of folk-song, and jazz. Unlike his teacher, he has found no use for jazz, though a jazz-derived syncopation is for him a perfectly legitimate rhythmic device. On the other hand, in spite of the intellectually concentrated nature of his musical thought, this does not rule out the existence of certain extra-musical ideas. His music may be assessed not only by the mechanics of its construction, but by its depiction of mood; a certain distilled resignation, controlled anger even, occurs several times. Fricker seeks a direct effect in this way. For instance, the First String Quartet resulted from sketches he made after seeing an exhibition in Battersea Park of the work of Henry Moore. His music is partly programme music.

But the central feature of his style, which chiefly decides the nature and the overall effect of the finished work, is the process of construction of the thematic patterns, and (later) the transformation of those patterns. Themes, for him, are not purely abstract invention, like note-rows. He is preoccupied with intervals, and the relationship of intervals. Thematic patterns can be derived from intervals, and the line of the melody can then be condensed into a set of chords. His treatment of chromaticism varies. It may be without a key-centre, such as he uses in the piano Episodes; it may be held to a key-centre by a background pedal note, such as the repeated A at the opening of the Third Symphony, or the D at the beginning and end of the Praeludium for organ. But Fricker’s style is pure music, he has recourse to nothing outside the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. He has worked consistently towards an idea of an organised, logical tonal procedure in his composition technique, and this logic is for him partly aural, partly structural. If a note belongs in a pitch-row, its position is logical, and its aural effect is therefore correct. In this way the composer can explain to himself why a chord is satisfying or not. Moreover, pitch-rows can have a certain symmetry, as well as logic, in the way they progress. Tonality is the end-product of this progression, not so much the starting point of the composition.

18 Anthony Milner


Like Fricker, though five years his junior, Anthony Milner also proceeded from the Royal College of Music to become a pupil of Matyas Seiber, and was associated with Morley College under Tippett. Unlike Fricker, however, Milner is also a scholar and musicologist as well as a composer; he has been a lecturer at London University since 1965, and has a number of important writings to his credit.

His music falls naturally into two categories, choral and instrumental. The character of his choral music is determined by a glowing, intensely poetic catholicism; a highly personal interpretation of the Christian message in the present-day world; mystical, symbolic, all-demanding. The character of his instrumental music is determined by a restless striving for freshness of effect within a tonal idiom. It is complex, contrapuntal, erudite, ref1ecting the composer’s wide range of musical scholarship. In his orchestral composition he allows the instruments an independence, a striving after adventure, which is not so apparent in his choral works, in which the meaning and implications of the verbal text, usually of a religious significance, are invested with such an urgent and overriding importance.


Instrumental works

Up to the Chamber Symphony Op. 25 (1968), nine compositions are for instruments. After the early Oboe Quartet, Op. 4 (1953), and the Rondo Saltato for organ (1955), Milner’s first work of substance was the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 14 (1958, revised 1967). The years 1958-1961 were a particularly important and fruitful period of his development, and in this piece a fresh stage of development first becomes apparent.

The theme which forms the subject of the variations is the traditional Advent hymn Es Ist ein Ros’ entsprungen. The fifteen variations fall into three groups of five, played without a break. Each group may be looked on as a symphonic unit, while the theme itself is treated as a note-row, after the manner of the Viennese school; that is to say it appears in its four versions (Original, Retrograde, Inversion and Retrograde Inversion), and is fragmented into its constituent motifs.

Group I:

1 Lento;

2 Allegro giocoso;

3 Andante quasi una Berceuse;

4 Allegro alla marcia;

5 Allegro scherzando.

The D major theme is first heard from a solo muted horn, against a very delicate countersubject by the strings. Throughout the first three variations it is retained in its original form, though fragmented, and treated against a rhythmical countersubject, with a bustling and characteristically irregular metre. Milner uses all the devices of counterpoint to develop a complex texture, in which the original theme is not immediately recognisable. In the fourth variation it is inverted, and in the fifth it is distributed between the wind instruments in long-held notes, after the manner of Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie.

Group II:

6 Lento molto;

7 Piu mosso;

8 Adagio molto;

9 L’Istesso tempo;

10 A tempo.

Throughout this second group, the theme is used either in its retrograde form, or its retrograde inversion. Milner here exploits orchestral sonorities, for instance in the sixth very short variation, which uses the bottom register of the brass instruments at a low dynamic level (pp). The eighth variation is built over an isorhythmic bass-that principle which may be seen in the work of mediaeval composers such as Perotin or Machaut. The pattern of notes, which is repeated like a ground bass, consists of two parts, the rhythmic part (talea), and the melodic part (color). In this case the colour is the retrograde version of the theme, while the talea is itself divided into two, talea I and talea ii. As will be seen the color is left incomplete at the end of talea ii, and therefore overlaps into the next reappearance of talea I. Talea I and talea ii appear three times, while the color appears seven times, with a different rhythmic distribution each time. This distinguishes the isorhythmic technique from that of the ground bass, or passacaglia, of later years. In this case, Milner allots the bass line to the double basses, and gives the cellos free melody, somewhat Elgarian in flavour, with wide leaps, which is repeated and inverted by a solo flute. The ninth variation builds up from pp to a brilliant orchestral climax (ff, molto brutale), and the retrograde tune at the end of it is harmonised for wind to form the tenth, very short, variation.

Group III:

11 Trionfale con moto (attacca 12):

12 Allegrissimo;

13 L’Istesso tempo;

14 Lento.

In this third group the theme is restored to its original version, though occasional use is made of its inverted form. Another mediaeval device, the hocket, characterises the eleventh variation. This is, approximately, a musical hiccough, resulting in the distribution of short fragments of the melody between different instruments, in this case the brass. The very fast rhythm of the middle variations of this group is built round a note (semiquaver) movement, mainly in the strings. The thirteenth variation is a double fugue, and the work ends, as it began, with the theme restored to its original melodic form, and given out once more by a solo horn.

In this work Milner’s orchestral style first shows certain mature stylistic hallmarks. His conception of variation form is original, while his idiom remains recognisably traditional. He retains a key signature almost throughout, and although certain variations, for example the ninth, are highly chromatic, and use wide leaps and harsh dissonance, he never loses sight of tonality. Complexity, particularly contrapuntal complexity, allied to an irregularity of metre, are intrinsic to his musical thought.

These characteristics mark his subsequent orchestral works, such as the Divertimento for Strings, Op. 18 (1961), and the Chamber Symphony, Op. 25. The first of these two works, which was commissioned for, and first played at, a Promenade Concert, has a character which is somewhat belied by its title. As one might expect from the composer of the Variations, it is a contrapuntal and busy work, in which Milner carries one stage further his personal solution of the problems presented by his characteristically chromatic idiom. These problems are largely formal, and have to do with tonality.

Sonata form had been the direct result, the outward manifestation, of an organized scheme of keys within a movement. The more you blur the edges of key-relationships, and weaken the possibilities of harmonic modulation, the more you undermine not just the distinctive nature of the themes, but the formal cohesion of a scheme such as sonata form. Some alternative is needed, which Milner seeks in the subtle exploitation of tonality. A tonality is by no means the same thing as a key in the diatonic sense; a tonal centre is something altogether more wide-ranging in its implications.

The first movement, Allegro all danza, uses the traditional two subjects of sonata form, and is based on a tonality of E, a kind of Phrygian, with modal modulation to introduce chromaticism. The second subject is a chromatic version of an F tonality. The development section is a contrapuntal working out of the material, and builds up to a climax (frenetico) before the main theme returns, but this time inverted, augmented and transposed. The metre is irregular; 6/8 juxtaposed with 2/4.

The short E major second movement, Moderato, uses two themes, one in the bass and one in the treble. The second finally ousts the first, which collapses towards the end, after having tried to start in augmentation. The third movement, Allegrissimo, again uses two subjects; the first rhythmical, which is treated in fugato style, with Milner’s customary irregular pulse; the second lyrical, recalling the opening of the first movement. Not till the very last chord does the C major tonality become finally explicit.


Choral Works

Formal and stylistic problems are not so pressing in Milner’s choral compositions. In the first place, the structure of each piece, its overall pattern and nature, is decided primarily by the words themselves; in the second place, the melodic idiom is chiefly influenced by what comes within reach of the human voice. In this respect his instinct is almost unerring, and he is not remotely interested in experiment for its own sake. His choral technique, texture and layout, are remarkably simple, and the music has a correspondingly greater impact and directness. The composer does not hesitate to write for a full chorus in unison if need be; nothing is allowed to impede the meaning of the words that he is seeking to illumine, and the music is in no way inhibited by technical considerations.

Milner’s first work, Op. 1, was a choral one, Salutatio Angelica (1948), a cantata for contralto solo, small choir (twenty-four voices), and chamber orchestra. The text consists of the ancient devotions known as the Angelus, the Eastertide Antiphon of Our Lady (‘Regina Coeli’), and the first four verses of Psalm 130. The prefatory quotation gives an essential clue to the composer’s underlying purpose: ‘For as nothing was done without the Word, so also nothing was done without the Mother of the Word’. The contralto thus suggests the Virgin Mary, and the choir are the faithful who hear the Word and comment on it. The tonality of the work is A at the beginning and end, with excursions into F sharp and C in the middle. But the most striking characteristic is its formal structure, which is as follows:


Chorus I (duple material: a + b)


Aria I Consolatrix afflictorum

Chorus II


Aria II Causa nostrae laetitiae

Chorus III (Material of Chorus I reversed, b + a)

Aria III, with Chorus, Mater misericordiae




The three Arias use the forms of ground bass, fugue and ostinato. In Aria I there is an overlapping of accents between ground bass and solo, while in Aria III the Sancta Maria chorus is a diminution of the previous solo line in canon at the tritone, with the sopranos and tenors a quaver later than the altos and basses. Each phrase of the psalm is followed by a phrase of the Ritornello, one of which accompanies the solo verse.

Three years later Milner wrote a short work for choir a cappella in which the merits of his choral technique are concentrated with remarkably brilliant effect-the Mass, Op. 3, dedicated to his teacher Matyas Seiber. Points of excellence abound in this quite exquisite miniature, which is a Missa brevis, without the creed; a characteristically simple and direct choral style; varied metre; varied mood, ranging from the solemnity of the opening, to the vitality of the Gloria for double choir; a consistency of idiom, for instance in the use of the semitone throughout.

Midway between the simplicity of these early works and the maturity which was to come, stands a transitional work, the City of Desolation, Op. 7. This, in several senses, is a prophetic composition. Written in 1955, the text is taken from R. A. Knox’s translation of the Bible, Psalm 23, and the Confessions of St. Augustine. Once again the prefatory quotation gives the clue: ‘Fecisti nos ad te, Domine, et irrequietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te’.

It is a work of direct and vivid expression, built round two contrasting moods, which may be said to correspond approximately to the two subjects of a symphonic movement. The first is a mood of desolation and despair, represented by the semitone, the tritone, and chromatic tonality. This is the mood of the choral introduction, one of the most effectively simple ideas this composer has had. The choir sing, Lento e molto piangendo, to a solemn accompaniment of muted brass, and lower strings marked senza vibrato: ‘Alone she dwells, the city erewhile so populous’.

The second mood is one of hope and trust, represented by the whole tone, perfect intervals and major tonality. This is expressed by the choir in unison 'In Him be thy trust’), later by the soloist (‘The Lord is my shepherd’). The opening motif and the concluding phrase, of the first choral passage are combined in a theme, given out like an accompanied fugue subject by the flute against a background of strings at [C] + 5. This melody appears again shortly afterwards at [E], inverted in B flat minor, molto adagio, before being transformed into the major tonality of A, in which guise it is interspersed between the verses of the psalm, Once again, within the framework of a recognizably traditional idiom. Milner’s expression is direct and vivid, his structure highly original and consistent.

There follow two more transitional works, both written in 1956, in which the composer feels his way forward, with varying success, towards the maturity that he was soon to achieve in The Water and The Fire. Both these two works, The Harrowing of Hell and St. Francis, have texts by J. A. Cuddon; Milner is not so much originating a choral structure, as setting words. The first piece was a bold answer to a commission which stipulated a ‘substantial a capella piece’. Two choirs are used, each with its respective soloist; but curiously, the overall effect is in inverse proportion to the complexity of the choral texture.

The second piece, St. Francis, is one of Milner’s rare artistic failures. Yet the very reasons for its failure are most illuminating, since they stem from its lack of those features which are the chief positive characteristics of his mature choral style. In this work he was merely setting a text, as distinct from evolving for himself the structure of the composition, its message and import. The composer seems to have been involved only externally; the structure seems to have been ready-made, and the nature of the world pre-determined by someone else. It lacks therefore that burning conviction that such a personal style as Milner’s presupposes.

Again, whereas one of his chief sources of strength is a certain simplicity and directness, in this work, as in The Harrowing of Hell, he admits more complexity in the choir writing, and this complexity is somewhat derivative; for instance the choral canons recall Tippett’s style in A Child of our Time. Moreover there is a lack of contrast throughout the work. Only one mood, that of praise, is sustained practically throughout, and this is insufficient to sustain the listener's interest over a large-scale composition. The colourful depiction of the wind and the storm is of momentary, local interest only, while in the third section, the Rondo, which is as strong as the other two movements together, the potential vitality of a dotted rhythm is nullified by the laborious tread of the slow-moving metre. In short, Milner is a subjective composer, with a personal, composite style, and he needs a subject in which he can immerse himself, and which he himself can interpret and project.

He found such a theme in The Water and the Fire, Op. 16 (1959/60), a work which more than compensates for any shortcomings in earlier transitional compositions, and which contains none of the negative qualities of the previous two works. The composer describes it as a dramatic oratorio in four scenes. In it he not only assimilates the new oratorio-style, apparent in British music since 1945, but he sums up the positive aspects of his choral style, and shows greater technical accomplishment than hitherto. Directness of expression is there in abundance, together with maturity of idiom.

The intricate text was selected by the composer from various parts of the Bible, St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, and the Easter Liturgy. Two quotations at the beginning of the score

O vere beata nox

Toute l’immense nuit du corps animé (Jacques Maritain)

point to the background of the drama; night seen first as the darkness of sin and separation; later as the ‘dark night of the soul’, and the prelude to resurrection.

The very precise, central intention of the work is suggested by St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (VI 3-4):

All of us who have been baptised into Christ were baptised into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

The three soloists are soprano, representing the soul, tenor, a quasi-Evangelist, and baritone, representing Christ. The structure of the work is cumulative and consistent, and the four movements, or scenes, develop an inevitable, overwhelmingly powerful, dramatic momentum, which culminates in the climax of the finale, when the chorus, representing humanity, are drawn into the Easter ritual, and all mankind are united as the redeemed children of God. As the soloists sing, ‘My Beloved is mine and I am his’.

In Scene I, Descent to the Pit, men and women are separated from their true destiny by sin. They have broken the covenant, and their guilt brings disaster and ruin to cities. In the ensuing storm and flood the human soul feels overwhelmed by darkness and terror. It can only cry out: ‘Out of the deep I cry to thee’. But comfort is hard to find: ‘Thick darkness covers my face’. The form of this scene is ternary, and an orchestral interlude leads directly into the next scene.

Scene II, Encounter, is dramatically more direct, and thus formally and tonally more simple. It is cast in Rondo form. The chorus and tenor soloist see the Stranger coming in the shadows. He is scarred and bruised, in the image of the suffering servant of the prophet Isaiah. The tenor soloist recognizes the Stranger as Christ. ‘Late have I loved thee. Thou didst shine forth and my darkness was scattered.’ Can a man bring himself to accept the agony and grief of Christ? Yet by doing this he is healed.

In Scene III, The Waters by Night, the soprano sings part of the poem by St John of the Cross, ‘Song of the Soul that is glad to know God by Faith’. This short aria represents a pause in the unfolding of the drama, a period symbolizing that interval between Christ's death and resurrection, while the soul waits, patient, yet reliant on the power of the divine grace.

Scene IV, The Easter Fire, starts with a slow, processional interlude for the orchestra, which corresponds structurally with that at the end of Scene I. The shape of the final scene is determined by the Easter Vigil Liturgy, and characterized by the plainchant and antiphonal singing of the Catholic ritual. ‘Rejoice, O choirs of angels in the heavens’. The blackness of sin is purged away by the light of the pillar of fire, the new fire of the baptismal font. On the same night when Israel walked through the sea, Christ burst the bonds of death, and rose victorious from the grave.

The shifting and cumulative structure of this highly original conception is aptly matched by the composer’s idiom. His personal use of tonality is richly varied and subtle, while the thematic material is integrated throughout the work. The desolate, penitential mood of the opening is represented by ambiguous tonality, and by motifs which grope towards a tonal centre. At the words ‘Out of the deep I cry to Thee’, a C tonality is made more explicit. The interlude joining Scenes I and II is poised between E and E flat minor; but Scene II opens with an accompaniment of triads, and the key signature of B flat. The tonality is thus more direct, and the clash of dissonance more obvious and explicit, than in the first scene. The word ‘peace’ (at [24] + 10) is depicted with a plain B flat major triad. The tonality of scene III is A flat, while that of the final scene is a free form of C major.

The germ from which the thematic material is derived consists of two intervals, the semitone (in its two guises of minor second and major seventh) and the augmented fourth.

Numerous expressive motifs are thus available, which occur throughout the work. The simple juxtaposition of the two intervals lends a distinctive flavour to melodic progressions, and matches the spirit of reverence and awe with which the work opens. This is well illustrated by the motif with which the chorus first appears, singing starkly in octaves, ff.

This is dramatically recalled in the final scene by the cellos, p. (at [56] + 3) to introduce the words ‘Lord, I am not worthy’. At the very moment of glory we are bidden to recall the earlier state of sin from which humanity has been redeemed.

Other instances of the expressive use of these ‘motivic’ intervals occur later in the first scene, when the Tenor cries out bleakly and desolately ‘I looked and there was no man’ and towards the close of the second scene, at the words ‘take up thy cross and follow me’

In the first case, the semitone rises, suggesting anguish and tension; in the second case the semitone falls, with exactly the opposite effect.

Used chordally, the semitone interval leads to the clash of tonalities with which scene II opens, while the augmented fourth leads to the climactic chord of C major with which the chorus enter at the opening of scene IV.

Both intervals dominate the instrumental interlude joining scenes I and II. This interlude is ternary in form, the middle section consisting of the 16-bar melody of the first section inverted, and the third section consisting of a repeat of the first, with some decoration, a semitone lower; a subtle use of this interval, and one that is full of expressive power.

The falling semitone is used to form an accompaniment figure in scene I, at [2], to give colour to the word ‘guilt’, and again in scene II, starting at[20] + 6, where it is developed by the oboe into an independent accompanimental melody. It is referred to again briefly in scene III by the violins. The most striking instance of transformation, which is the hallmark of this work, is the soprano soloist's cry of ‘Alleluia’ in the final scene, at [61] + 8, when the notes of the opening of the first scene have lost all their former anguish and torment, and become instead radiant and joyful.

The opening of the fourth scene is the central moment. Structurally, dramatically, musically and emotionally it represents the centre of gravity of the work, that point towards which the listener has up to now been drawn, and without which a work of these dimensions would be stillborn. The introduction of boys’ voices, first as a solo, then as a group, singing the Lumen Christi (taken from the procession that follows the blessing of the New Fire in the Vigil rite), provides just that necessary freshness. Three times we hear Lumen Christi; first at a great distance, then gradually drawing nearer. Each successive entry is higher in pitch, and louder, while the orchestral passages separating them, representing the slow movement of the procession, are made up of previously heard material. The Allelluia chant (from the Vigil Mass) is similarly treated; first by the choir basses, as a background to the happy duet of the tenor and soprano soloists; then somewhat louder, and at a higher pitch, by the choir tenors; then by the full choir.

For the hymn of triumph in the final scene, Milner divides his choir into two, and together with the two soloists, makes a glittering choral texture in ten parts. This outburst is immediately followed by the very quiet sound of boys’ and men’s voices singing ‘as if from a great height’, a cappella: ‘Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth,’ They are joined by the full choir for the second phrase: ‘Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. Hosanna in excelsis.’ For this music, Milner uses the Sanctus from his earlier Mass, Op. 3.

The strength of this work lies in its combining numerous different elements into a single, consistent artistic unit. The ritual of the fourth scene is the consummation of all that has gone before. Though the choral writing is simple, it is varied and highly colourful, with occasionally a high soprano part. The solo parts include every shade of expressive device except Sprechgesang, while instrumental colour is used for its association; flutes, for instance, in the final scene for their erotic association, and the organ for its religious association. Milner delights in using the full orchestral colour to depict the floods and the thunder in the first scene, and handbells to add to the ecstasy of the fourth.

After the oratorio, most of Milner’s works were for instruments. These include a projected symphony, begun in 1965 [To a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra]. Not until 1969 did he write the next large-scale choral work, and this was very different from the oratorio. Roman Spring [commissioned by the Redcliffe Concerts, and first played on 13th October 1969, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The following year it was performed again at the Camden Festiva1, and at a Promenade Concert] is a three-movement secular cantata, sung in Latin, for soprano, tenor, chorus and chamber orchestra, in praise of love.

A slow introduction (Largo molto) with a wordless vocal melisma for the soprano, leads into a setting of the second-century Pervigilium Vcneris, with its recurring motto, Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet. The music is jubilant, rhythmically lithe, and the idiom is considerably more chromatic than the oratorio of nine years previously. The vocal line frequently, if unwittingly, encompasses the twelve notes; for instance, the motto which the tenor first sings, Cras amet.

The second section is divided between the two soloists. The tenor starts (moderato flessibile) with a setting of the Horace ode Diffugere nives; after this the chorus and soprano are allotted a more philosophical passage from Lucretius’ De rerum natura-surely the first time any of this poem has been set to music. Whereas the subject of the first section is the importance of love in the springtime of life, the second section reflects on the common human lot that all good things eventually pass from us.

The third section therefore concludes with the message: enjoy life, and love, while you can! Catullus’ famous love-poem to his mistress Lesbia, Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus, is set as a recitative for the tenor, after which the chorus lead in with a rondo, Tempus est Jocundum, a thirteenth century poem, in the manuscripts of Benedictbeurn. This brilliant rondo finale has alternating solos, and finishes with the Cras amet of the opening.

As well as a composer, Milner is also a lecturer, writer and harpsichordist. His early work with the Morley College choir under Tippett introduced him, at a very formative stage, to the music of many different schools and styles as well as Tippett’s own works; to the English madrigal; to Monteverdi’s Vespers, Purcell’s Odes, and Cantatas of Bach and Buxtehude, which he performed with the soprano Ilse Wolf. The cross-rhythm of the madrigalists fascinated him, while his interest in all aspects of musical history is reflected not only in his own compositions, but in his numerous essays and writings. These deal with the Baroque period, the sixteenth century, the work of Tippett, and the problems connected with present-day Roman Catholic church music, following the decision of the Vatican Council to allow the use of the vernacular.

Milner has been a frequent visitor to America. He was, for instance, the ‘composer-in-residence’ in 1965 and 1966 at Loyola University, New Orleans, at the summer school of Liturgy and Music.

Like Tippett, Milner’s music has more of a long-term importance than an instant popularity. He was, unfortunately, extremely vulnerable to that swing of the pendulum of fashion which took place in England in about 1960; yet his very integrity, to say nothing of his instinct, caused him to discard the more experimental approach of the avant-garde, which might have earned him a momentary advantage. Milner is not interested in tricks or gimmicks of any kind; his challenge is the much more formidable one, in that he wrestles with tonality, and seeks out of a traditional idiom to forge a fresh technique, without recourse to any device, except those of whose worth he is convinced.

19 Michael Tippett


The work of Tippett, like that of Stravinsky, is a vital, organic, continuous growth; an astonishingly rich harvest of ideas; a fertile, imaginative synthesis of past tradition and present culture, sustained by a singleness of purpose. His creative thought has a psychological depth which, though it differs from that of Vaughan Williams in many particulars, nevertheless springs from the same source. Both show a firm sense of purpose, a long-term visionary quality, an ecstatic lyricism, which gives their best work a long-term relevance rather than an immediate popularity. Their roots go deep into the English tradition, while their thoughts range beyond the present into a wide view of the future; their tradition is thus nourished. The differences between the two composers are, in one sense, of less importance than their identity of purpose, and are due, in the main, simply to those differences of general outlook that you would expect to occur between one generation and the next. Tippett is post-jazz, post-Schoenberg, post-Jung and post-Vaughan Williams, though he has never adhered to any system or school.

His remarkably penetrating insight into the life of our time has, at all phases, coloured his compositions. The human, though all too rare, attributes of compassion, concern, optimism, which form the channel for his creativity, have their counterpart in that complexity and elaboration of rhythm and melody which have always been so fundamental to his technique. Indeed, complexity is of the essence of his thoughts, whether as a composer or a thinker; his music, like his personality, unfolds gradually, layer upon layer, deeper and deeper. Sometimes different layers interact; sometimes the underlying intention of a work shines through brilliantly and without impediment, and invests the whole composition with a force that burns with its enthusiasm. In A Child of Our Time, for instance, the underlying conception of a persecuted minority, is never lost sight of, and the work derives from this a compelling urgency. If the artist may be defined simply as one who is more responsive than others, Tippett is also aware of extra dimensions in contemporary life; the dark side as well as the light, the concealed as well as the apparent.

In purely instrumental works the complexity is more in the nature of the melodic, contrapuntal or rhythmic elaboration of a basically quite simple structure. Sometimes, in for instance the Third String Quartet and the Second Symphony, there grows out of the music an ecstatic lyricism that is quite unique in British music today.

He was born in 1905 of Cornish stock, and spent his early years at Wetherden in Suffolk. His student days at the Royal College of Music in London were based on the traditional harmonic teaching of the German school, handed down by Charles Wood, and before him by Stanford and Parry. The composer who dominated his student years, however, was Beethoven, particularly the Beethoven of the piano sonatas and string quartets. In addition to Beethoven, his musicality tended more towards that rhythmic drive and vigour, which is not found in the German harmonic approach to composition, but belongs more to the earlier polyphonic period. He also had a particular interest in word-setting, of which the English madrigal, and the songs of Dowland, provided such shining examples. These, however, found no place in the course of studies of the College, and it was the work of a Cambridge musician, also a former College student, Boris Ord, who founded the Cambridge University Madrigal Society in 1922, that gave such an inspiring lead in rediscovering the nature of the English madrigal.

And so, whereas Vaughan Williams had been drawn more to folk-song, on the one hand, and the austere ‘one-note-per-syllable’ style of the Tudor composers Gibbons and Tallis, on the other, Tippett was much more strongly, more instinctively, drawn to the style of Purcell. Moreover, he felt much more affinity with the neo-classic tendencies of Stravinsky (particularly with the additive rhythm technique of a work such as Les Noces) than with the neo-expressionism of the Schoenberg school. He could feel nothing but antipathy for the ‘alphabetical’ system of the 12-note technique.

Another strong influence in Tippett’s musical make-up is that of jazz. He was attracted to it from the start. It seemed to him remarkable that the Blues, which started as such a simple, primitive folk-art, consisting of only twelve bars and three chords, endlessly repeated, should persist and flourish as it has. Here, surely, is proof of sheer artistic stamina and vitality; and the composer’s problem is not so much to explain this extraordinary fact-any explanation would really be irrelevant-as to decide how he can adapt and use this means of expression in a purposeful way in his own work, so that it will sustain the emotional weight of his thought. In the Blues is a natural melancholy, decorated with an endless Baroque-style variation in the melodic part. Herein is contained a powerful means of expressing that anguish, which is the essence of the musical voice today; here is found a synthesis of musical styles, melodic and rhythmic, syllabic and melismatic, sophisticated and unsophisticated, which gives the art-form a broadly-based appeal.

As far as folk-song was concerned-that remarkable movement which sprang up simultaneously in many different European countries towards the end of the nineteenth century, and reached its climax about 1930-Tippett was never a field collector, as Vaughan Williams had been; nor did he share the purism of a Cecil Sharp, who dismissed The Beggar’s Opera as spurious folk-song. Folk-song for Tippett is an art-form in embryo, an artistic principle, which may be perfectly legitimately used if the need arises for ‘traditional material’. If he wants a folk-song for a particular purpose he will write one; as he did, for instance, in the Suite in D (1948), written for Prince Charles’s birthday.


Tippett’s most brilliant and colourful student-contemporary was Constant Lambert, and the view expressed in Lambert’s Music Ho! that ‘folk-songs in England are not a vigorous living tradition’ was, and is, generally accepted. Folk-song had served a particular purpose at a particular period of British music; that period was past. There is, moreover, a basic dichotomy between a folk-song style and the requirements of symphonic form; and it is the latter that Tippett has wrestled with.

The years following his period as a student at the Royal College of Music were precarious ones for Tippett. He taught French for a while at a preparatory school, while evolving his technique and idiom as a composer in a comparatively humble capacity. While Constant Lambert pursued, with characteristic zest, the cosmopolitan world of the Russian Ballet, Tippett was drawn instinctively to the less glittering, more humdrum, yet more relevant and peculiarly English world of amateur music-making. If his work is to have a lasting life, a composer needs to have roots, secure and deep; and Tippett, like Vaughan Williams, has always recognized the importance of amateur music-making to the growth of the nation’s musicality. His concern with this has covered his whole career and ranges from early operatic ventures, such as Love in a Village (1929), which he wrote for the local choral society at Oxted in Surrey, and Robin Hood, a one-act ballad opera, which he wrote for the miners of Cleveland in Yorkshire at a time (1931) of industrial depression; it includes his work at Morley College in London, where he remained as Music Director until 1951; it extends finally to his work with the Leicestershire County Youth Orchestra, whom he took on a tour of Belgium in 1966, and conducted in programmes of music by English composers of this century. His Shires Suite (1970) was written for them.

By his fortieth year, the basic pattern of his work had begun to take shape in a way that was remarkably parallel to that of Vaughan Williams thirty years previously. The three most characteristic works by which Vaughan Williams was known by 1914 were the Tallis Fantasia, the Sea Symphony, and the settings of Housman poems for tenor, piano and string quartet, On Wenlock Edge; the three most characteristic works by which Tippett was known by 1945 were the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the oratorio A Child of our Time, and the cantata for tenor and piano, on a prose-text by W. H. Hudson, Boyhood’s End. A large number of compositions before 1935 were later withdrawn.

Tippett’s style up to 1946, and his gradual evolution of an instrumental technique, is typified in the three string quartets. His fondness for quick harmonic change, and the interval of the fourth, and wide leaps within the space of a few beats, is already apparent in the First String Quartet, which was originally written in 1935, and revised in 1943 (dates throughout refer to the year of completion of a work). The opening Sonata Allegro is full in texture throughout, except the cadenzas for the cello which mark the end of the exposition as well as the end of the movement. The tonality (D/A) is both clear and distinctive, with numerous clashes of the major and minor third, cross accents, and rapidly-moving harmonies. The second movement, in the remote key of D flat, develops a soaring melodic line, and grows out of the first 2-bar phrase, with a reprise at [24]. Again, the four instruments play throughout, and the texture is full. The final rondo introduces that added rhythm that so beguiled Tippett at this time. A metrical unit, in this case the 1/8th note (quaver), is treated with unequal bar divisions. But all the instruments move together. This distinguishes this technique from polyrhythm, which is the imposition of one rhythm upon another.

The Second String Quartet in F sharp develops further the style of the first. Its timing is important. It was written in 1942, after the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939) and A Child of Our Time (1941), but before Boyhood’s End (1943) and the First Symphony (1945), to which it leads on directly. The opening Allegro is a continuous melody, with full four-part texture throughout; a polyphony of long, interweaving lines. The style of the movement is that of a sixteenth-century English madrigal, in which each part may have its own rhythm, and the music is propelled by the forward thrust of differing accents. Bar lines thus form a purely arbitrary division, which was also the case in the quartets of Van Dieren. The second movement is a fugue, whose minor tonality, and unitary structure, gives the music an intensity which is entirely in contrast with the ensuing presto. This once again uses the additive rhythm technique of the finale of the first quartet, and Tippett has aimed at a linear freedom suited for gay, fast music. The beats are alternately short and long, of two and three units, whether quavers or crotchets. It is a ternary movement, in three sections: three varied presentations of a single statement. The finale reverts to a classic sonata-form, whose image is dramatic, Beethoven-inspired. The cantabile second subject effects a marked tonal change into a flat key (E flat/A flat). The various sources of influence in this remarkable work show the chief preoccupations of Tippett at this time.

The Third String Quartet (1946) followed the First Symphony, and immediately the composer enjoyed the comparative rhythmic freedom of the smaller group. The opening Grave develops a recitative-like figure in 312 notes (demi-semiquavers) for all the instruments over a slow pulse. This principle is further expanded in the fourth movement, as well as in certain other works; for instance in the third, slow song (‘Compassion’) of The Heart’s Assurance, and in the slow movement of the Second Symphony. Thus Tippett sheds a glow of nervous excitement over a prevailingly slow-moving passage. Ripples of rapid sound catch the ear, yet without breaking the stillness. The rest of the first movement is a fugue, with a very long, melodic subject. If the flavour of the second movement, (Andante), is medieval, with a 2 metre combined with 3, and material which strongly suggests plainchant, the dance-like character of the third movement (Allegro molto) provides an entire contrast with its combination of 8 with 4, unison scales and rhythmic counterpoint. The freedom of such writing is only possible within the medium of a string quartet, since each line is a rhythmic entity of its own.

After the energy of the dance is spent, Tippett introduces a more contemplative mood. Against a held A in the second violin, the three other parts weave independent rhythms, each with different note values; an upward recitative-like phrase for solo cello leads to an appassionato phrase, followed by a calm moment, before the process is repeated. The shape of the melody is constructed in seconds, and the sentence is repeated three times, with the role of the instruments altered; the third time leads to a proliferation of the material in each part, and an ecstatic outburst, which forms the end of the movement. After this complexity, the comparative simplicity of the finale (Allegro comodo) affords just the right amount of contrast.

Before considering those mainstream works which form the core of his output, there remain some of the smaller vocal and keyboard pieces. Neither of the two piano sonatas shows Tippett as naturally inclined to this instrument. The first, written in 1937, and revised in 1942, shares some of the same features as the First String Quartet, added rhythms, presto unisons, and so on, but without the contrapuntal drive. The Second Sonata, in one movement, followed King Priam, and is altogether tougher in idiom; but despite its formidable appearance on paper, it is predominantly a lyrical work. The little Organ Prelude (1945) was written to precede a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, and quotes extensively from it. It is not really characteristic of Tippett.

On the other hand the two song cycles, Boyhood's End (1943) and The Heart’s Assurance (1951), are fine examples of declamatory recitative and melodic word-setting. Tippett’s characteristic added rhythms are shown to be verbally, as well as musically, adaptable, while the exuberant piano part of The Heart’s Assurance, and its highly contrasted movements, make it, along with the Third String Quartet, a lasting contribution to the repertory.

The mainstream of his output has been marked by one or two climactic works, whose gestation and creation have cost great labour over a long period, and which have proved to be the source from which subsequent works have flowed. Thus the Second Symphony flows directly from The Midsummer Marriage, the Concerto for Orchestra directly from the opera King Priam. The fact that the seminal compositions tend to be in the form of opera or oratorio, and are not so much settings of words as settings of thoughts, ideas, dreams, is due partly to the fact that he is English, partly to his bent of mind. These mainstream works are the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939), the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1941), the operas The Midsummer Marriage (1952), King Priam (1962), The Vision of Saint Augustine (1965) and The Knot Garden (1970).

The first of these, the Concerto, has obvious affinities with Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia; both composers were inspired by the medium of the string orchestra, which, in this century at least, is chiefly confined to England [there are a few notable works for string orchestra by American composers, for instance Barber’s Adagio, Copland’s Nonet]; both compositions derived from a common source, the old English Fancy.

Another source-work for Tippett was Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra. But though Tippett looked on the two orchestras of his Concerto as vehicles for concertante effects, such as are sometimes found between the Concertino and Ripieno of the eighteenth century Concerto Grosso, the structure was Beethoven-inspired; a dramatic Sonata Allegro, a slow movement like a quartet, a Sonata Rondo.

A preoccupation with classical structure also marks the First Symphony. Again, the work opens with a dramatic Sonata Allegro, on a big scale. The second movement (Adagio), however, reaches back beyond Beethoven, to Purcell, with a set of mirror variations on a long ground bass. The scherzo reaches back further still, and combines the characteristics of a Beethoven scherzo with those of mediaeval hocket, such as shown in the work of Perotin. The finale is an enormous double fugue.

Like Stravinsky before him, Tippett showed the inclination of many neo-classical composers to reach back to the techniques and inspiration of earlier periods of music, and apply them in his own work. Milner was to do the same. It was logical therefore that, also like Stravinsky, Tippett should re-think the structure of the orchestra itself, and the use of the instruments. The fruits of this line of thought were shown in the Concerto for Orchestra (1963).

Following The Midsummer Marriage, which was completed in 1952, and produced at Covent Garden in 1955, Tippett wrote several instrumental and orchestral works, such as the Corelli Fantasia (1953), the Piano Concerto (1955). This phase of his work culminated in the Second Symphony (1957). Tippett’s idiom evolves markedly in this work. Not only is there a strong influence of Stravinsky, but the music is bolder, fresher than hitherto, with a foretaste of that vigour which Tippett has called a ‘toughness’ in the fibre of the music, that was to be fully discovered in the next mainstream work, King Priam. Once having found this, Tippett did not lose sight of it in the ensuing works. King Priam marks a turning-point in his style; the Second Symphony already shows this change beginning.

The composer himself has described the process underlying his work on this symphony:

About the time I was finishing The Midsummer Marriage, I was sitting one day in a small studio of Radio Lugano, looking out over the sunlit lake, listening to tapes of Vivaldi. Some pounding cello and bass Cs, as I remember them, suddenly threw me from Vivaldi’s world into my own, and marked the exact moment of conception of the Second Symphony. Vivaldi’s pounding Cs took on a kind of archetypal quality, as though to say: ‘Here is where we must begin.’ The Second Symphony does begin in that archetypal way, though the pounding Cs are no longer Vivaldi’s. At once horns in open fifths, with F sharps, force the ear away from the C ground. I don’t think we ever hear the Cs as classically stating the key of C. We only hear them as a base, or ground, upon which we can build, or from which we can take off in flight. When the Cs return at the end of the symphony, we feel satisfied, and the work completed, though the final chord, which is directed to ‘let vibrate in the air’, builds up from the base C thus: C16 C8 G C4 D2 A C E

It was some years after the incident in Lugano before I was ready to begin composition. While other works were being written, I pondered and prepared the symphony’s structure: a dramatic Sonata Allegro: a song-form slow movement; a mirror-form scherzo in additive rhythm; a fantasia for a finale. Apart from the rather hazy memory of the Vivaldi Cs, I wrote down no themes or motives during this period. I prefer to invent the work’s form in as great a detail as I can before I invent any sound whatever. But as the formal invention proceeds, textures, speeds, dynamics, become part of the formal process. So that one comes closer and closer to the sound itself until the moment when the dam breaks and the music of the opening bars spills out over the paper. As I reached this moment in the symphony, the B.B.C. commissioned the piece for the tenth anniversary of the Third Programme, but, in the event, I was a year late. It was performed first in the Royal Festival Hall, London, in February 1958, and conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. There was a breakdown during this performance, owing to the work’s complexity and shortage of rehearsal time.

One of the vital matters to be decided in the period of gestation before composition, is the overall length; and then the kind of proportions that best fit this length. The symphony takes about thirty-five minutes to play, and its four movements are tolerably equal, though the slow movement is somewhat longer than the others. So it is not a long, spun-out, rhapsodic work, but a short, concentrated dramatic work. And this concentration, compression even, is made clear from the word go. The opening Sonata Allegro makes big dramatic gestures above the pounding opening Cs, and is driven along and never loiters. It divides itself into fairly equal quarters: statement, first argument, re-statement, second argument and coda. The lyrical quality of the slow movement is emphasised by presenting the ‘song’ of the song-form (after a short introduction) at first on divided cellos and later on divided violins. In between lies a lengthy and equally lyrical passage for all the string body. The wood and brass wind accompany the ‘songs’ with cluster-like chords, decorated by harp and piano. The movement ends with a tiny coda for the four horns, a sound I remembered from the Sonata for Four Horns which I had already written.

The scherzo is entirely in additive rhythm. Additive rhythm means simply that short beats of two quavers and long beats of three quavers are added together indefinitely in a continuous flow of unequal beats. The movement has been called an ‘additive structure’, which I think very well describes it. At the central point heavy long beats are contrasted against light short beats, in a kind of tour dc force of inequality, issuing in a climax of sound with brilliant trumpet to the fore. The movement then unwinds, via a cadenza-like passage for piano and harp alone, to its end.

The finale is a fantasia in that its four sections do not relate to each other, like the four sections of the first movement Sonata Allegro, but go their own way. Section I is short, and entirely introductory; Section 2 is the longest and is a close-knit set of variations on a ground; Section 3 is a very gay melody, which begins high up on violins and goes over at half-way to cellos, who take the line down to their bottom note, the C of the original pounding Cs; Section 4 is a coda of five gestures of farewell.

Tippett’s imagination is acute, his thought revolutionary, his musical personality complex. An artist who can, in the way he does [as he described in Moving into Aquarius], concern himself with the evanescent and incorporeal world of ideas beyond the confines of time or the senses, to the extent of setting the products of the spiritual imagination on equal terms with those of the world of technics, is both, in the worldly sense, unrealistic and, in the true sense, revolutionary-completing the cycle, and circle, of human life that today is so divided. He seeks with his art to heal that rift between material and technical progress on the one hand, and the things of the spirit on the other. Material abundance, he says, should encourage, not exclude, artistic growth. What better way is there of demonstrating this coming together, this oneness, of different people, or of people who have been driven apart by wars, racial tensions, or other human failings, than by means of an opera or oratorio which, if anything, is the artist’s vision of a collective experience?

Tippett is a keen student of Greek literature and ideas; and indeed what better source of material is there than the legends, the mythology of old, which draw on the universal experience of mankind over an untold period of time, and which we know, by Jung’s definition, as the ‘collective unconscious’? Music’s power to unify is one of its underlying characteristics; Tippett’s interpretation of this in the contemporary situation is his unique contribution to contemporary music; and just as Stravinsky’s aesthetic finds some expression in the words of Picasso, so that of Tippett is found to be paralleled in T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats.

The influence of T. S. Eliot is mainly seen in Tippett’s attitude towards the problem of music in the theatre [see Moving into Aquarius]. To be able to achieve stage effects is an essential part of an opera composer’s technique; nothing can be left to chance; otherwise there is the greatest risk of slipping into the sort of operatic cliche which is very commonly found among less experienced composers. The composer needs to treat his libretto as the poet would, if it were to become a poem or a play. If the poet asserts his poetry too strongly, the composer’s work is, to some extent, superfluous. A libretto, therefore, needs short lines, simple sentences, which the composer-not the poet-then completes. In order that the experience of an opera should be an immediate one, the material and the language need to be everyday, even ordinary. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party is an excellent example of this, and Tippett’s own libretti are invariably of this nature.

The Concerto for Orchestra not only followed King Priam; it arose out of it very directly, and used the material, the sonorities and the effects of the opera in a symphonic context. The instruments are grouped into various small concertini, and the work explores the combination and interaction of these vividly differentiated groups. The analogy with characters in a play is quite patent: they converse, interlock, juxtapose their contrasting arguments, and eventually revert to silence. In the first movement there are nine concertini. The first three (flute and harp; tuba and piano; three horns) are primarily melodic; the second three (timpani and piano; oboe, cor anglais, bassoon, double bassoon; two trombones and percussion) are primarily rhythmic; the third three (xylophone and piano, clarinet and bass clarinet, two trumpets and sidedrum) are used for brilliance and speed.

A third of the movement is taken up with the statement of this material; this is followed by three working-out passages, in which the implications of the material are made explicit by instrumental juxtaposition. After the climax (a stroke on the gong) the music returns to the calm of the opening.

The strings are not used until the slow movement, and then only as a small group; eight violins (not divided into ‘first’ and ‘seconds’) four violas, five cellos, four basses. Moreover the light tone of the violins, playing in a small group, and capable of great virtuosity, is contrasted with the dark tone of violas, cellos and basses.

The finale uses mixed ensembles, strings and wind. The work as a whole is not so much one in which themes develop into a dramatic climax, which was the Beethoven principle, as a study in the sectional interaction of orchestral colour.

Whereas Eliot interpreted Christianity, Yeats ‘wrestled with mythology’. For him, as for Goethe, mythology was reality; the contemporary and the mythological were one. Tippett was most influenced by Yeats at the time of King Priam. Helen’s song in Act III is pure Yeats; particularly the words: ‘For I am Zeus’s daughter, conceived when the great wings beat above Leda.’ At about the same time as King Priam, other settings of Yeats also appear, such as the Lullaby for six voices, and Music for Words, perhaps.

The influence of Jung belongs to an earlier stage of Tippett’s work. Apart from Jungian concepts, which he found congruent with his own at a particular period of his life, the metaphysical language seemed to him a way to express religious truths. ‘I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole,’ is the Jungian philosophy which provides the closing moment in A Child of Our Time; and the motto which heads this work, taken from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, sums up the underlying theme of division and wholeness.

If generalisations about most composers are unsatisfactory, they are even more unsatisfactory in the case of Tippett. He has avoided selfrepetition; each work is re-thought de novo; and the works written since King Priam, for instance the Concerto for Orchestra and The Vision of Saint Augustine, are in a starker, bolder idiom than those written before; they are still centred round a tonality, but it is a tonality built in fourths rather than thirds which give the work a certain acerbity.


The Operas

Opera, as we have seen, has developed steadily in England since 1945. The year 1955 was a particularly important one, with no fewer than four new productions by prominent composers. These were Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, and Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. It was the last work which held out the most promise for the future, not just of Tippett’s creative career, but of English music in a wider context. Not that the opera was flawless by any means; indeed, if one merely wishes to point out its shortcomings, one will be disconcerted to find that the composer himself has already done so. Certainly it lacks the sense of theatre that Walton’s work has in abundance; certainly Britten shows greater fluency and sheer technical adroitness; all this may be conceded: yet to weigh against these shortcomings, if they are shortcomings, Tippett brought nothing less than a totally fresh sense of purpose into opera-namely, dramatic unity through the fusion of opposing principles, the confrontation and the relationship of opposites, the welding of past traditions into the contemporary theatre. He thus sought to make common, age-old, timeless experiences relevant to us today. His music is magical.

Such a creative vision is of a basically different order from that of the composer who sees opera either as a play with music, or as a structure of related songs and choral ensembles. Any competent hack composer-to say nothing of the not-so-competent ones-can add musical icing to a ready-made dramatic cake. But Tippett’s art is on an altogether different plane; he approaches the problem of opera from the other end. His concern is to express the eternal in terms of the temporal [‘A timeless music played in time’, as Hermes says at the end of Priam]. The universal, archetypal experience of humanity, which may be found symbolically expressed in mythological legends and folklore, is sought out and discovered by the receptive imagination of the artist, and re-interpreted for his contemporaries. In this respect Tippett is the successor of Berg, though very little influenced by him, if at all.

When The Midsummer Marriage was first produced in 1955 it caused bewilderment and confusion. The general impression was that, while the music itself was the equal of any of Tippett’s other work (indeed, the Ritual Dances are frequently performed as an orchestral suite), the success of the opera as a whole was gravely impaired by an unnecessarily involved and dramatically motionless libretto. If only the composer had not written it himself! If only the dramatic interest equalled the musical!

Thirteen years later the opera was produced again, under Colin Davis. In the intervening years the serialist and avant-garde movements of the late 50s and 60s had gathered momentum, with the result that audiences were becoming somewhat less conservative, and more aware of new developments; and so, when The Midsummer Marriage was repeated, the public had grown more ready to accept the work on its own terms, and this time it was hailed as an unqualified success. A recording was arranged [sponsored by the British Council]; the former difficulties seemed, in retrospect, to be more apparent than real.

And yet the opera interprets past dramatic and operatic traditions in a highly personal way; it possesses what Tippett calls ‘singularities’, which its successor, King Priam, does not. King Priam is a more readily understood, heroic, tragic opera.

If in The Midsummer Marriage, whose theme is love, he did not quite succeed in projecting the somewhat static situation and nature of his characters with the dynamic of structural unity and dramatic urgency, no such qualification applies to King Priam, whose theme is war. In The Midsummer Marriage he sought to compose a sort of twentieth-century Magic Flute; but the symbolism and imagery are difficult to comprehend to anyone not acquainted with Hindu mythology or Fraser’s Golden Bough. Moreover, the opera consists in a sequence of symbolic ideas rather than a succession of inevitable events; as a result, the conclusion towards which we are drawn, the union of the lovers, does not provide the work with that psychological centre of gravity that it needs if it is to be presented convincingly on the stage. The action may be symbolically meaningful, but that does not necessarily make it relevant to us. But for anyone who can overcome this initial challenge, the spark of true inspiration is there, and Tippett reveals a totally fresh world of artistic experience. When he pursued this in another opera, whose theme and events were of very direct concern to Europeans in the 1960s, the result could hardly fail to be an explosive challenge of the greatest importance to the history of opera and of contemporary music generally.

In King Priam Tippett took the traditional story of the sack of Troy by the Greeks, and told it from the Trojan (i.e. the defeated enemy's point of view. Here was a theme that all understood: war, with its pity and its terror. Priam is made a tragic hero. Love is certainly a timeless theme, if ever there was one; but the main advantage of his choosing the Trojan war as the subject for his second opera was that he found not only a great theme, with other subsidiary themes, love included, deriving from it, but also a traditional and well-known story, which would act as a framework for the theme. Imagery there certainly is in King Priam, but it is immediately recognizable, relevant and dramatic because we relate it without doubt or difficulty to the events. Moreover, the second opera has a realism not found in the first. If we need points of reference, they are to be found in Wagner, Stravinsky, Brecht, T. S. Eliot.

In King Priam Tippett does not confine the action to a single time or place: the duration of the opera is the life span of Priam’s son Paris. Scenes also shift. As with his first opera, and A Child of Our Time, Tippett wrote his own libretto. A starting-point from which to study the construction and the composition of the work is provided by the four principles which he himself laid down [in The Birth of an Opera (from Moving into Aquarius)], and which form a sort of aesthetic philosophy of his work as an opera composer:

1) Opera is ultimately dependent on the contemporary theatre.

2) The more collective an artistic imaginative experience is going to be, the more the discovery of suitable material is involuntary.

3) While the collective, mythological material is always traditional, the specific twentieth-century quality is the power to transmute such material into an immediate experience of our day.

4) In opera the musical schemes are always dictated by the situations.

Tippett has drawn up a corresponding musical scheme, in accordance with these principles.


Scene I

A chorus of lament is heard off-stage; a baby cries, and a point of light falls on a cradle. The child’s mother, Hecuba, wife of Priam, King of Troy, is disturbed by a dream which she cannot understand. This is interpreted by an old man to mean that the child, Paris, will be the cause of his father’s death. Priam, therefore, decides that the child must be killed, and orders a guard to do this.

Interlude I:

The old man, a nurse, and the guard reflect on this dilemma; child-murder is a crime, but what if it is your duty?

Scene 2 Some years later Priam’s eldest son, Hector, while out hunting, meets his brother Paris, who has been brought up secretly all this time by a shepherd [a common feature of legends; cf. the story of Oedipus]. Paris chooses to go to Troy, and when asked outright, gives his name. Priam reflects on this trick of fate. Will the old prophecy come true? He nevertheless accepts his son’s choice.

Interlude 2: The old man, nurse, and guard see life as a ‘bitter charade’. Hector meanwhile has found a perfect wife in Andromache, while Paris leaves Troy in disgust, and sails to Greece, where the King of Sparta, Menelaus, and his wife, Helen, ‘keep open house’.

Scene 3

Paris is enamoured of and captivated by Helen. He persuades her to leave Menelaus and go to Troy with him as his wife. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, comes to him in a dream, and tells him to choose between the three goddesses, Athene, Hera and Aphrodite. Athene appears to him as Hecuba, representing prudence; Hera as Andromache, representing faithfulness; and Aphrodite as Helen, representing the ‘eternal feminine’ principle

1. In spite of warnings of the inevitable vengeance that will follow, he chooses Aphrodite.


Scene I

The ten-year Trojan war is now approaching its terrible climax. Hector the soldier chides Paris the adulterer, and expresses more respect for the Greek Menelaus than for his own brother. Priam tries to mediate, and urges them to fight the enemy, not each other.

Interlude I:

Hermes takes the old man (thereby also the audience) over to the Greek camp, to Achilles’ tent.

Scene 2

Achilles and his friend Patroclus look back nostalgically to their childhood in Greece. Now, however, Achilles has quarrelled with Agamemnon, the Greek Commander-in-Chief, over the ownership of a captive girl, Briseis, and has refused to fight. But a plan is worked out, whereby Patroclus, wearing Achilles’ armour, shall pretend to be Achilles, and go into battle against the Trojans.

Interlude 2:

A threat to Troy is foreseen.

Scene 3

Back in Troy, we hear that Patroclus, in Achilles’ armour, led the Greeks up to the walls, only to be killed by Hector in single combat. Priam, Hector and Paris sing a hymn of thanks to Zeus. At that moment, from the Greek side, Achilles utters his war-cry of vengeance for Patroclus.


Scene I

Hecuba, Andromache and Helen express their different loves and loyalties; to the city, to the home, to love itself. Hecuba tries to mediate when the other two quarrel. Andromache has an intuitive premonition of Hector’s death.

Interlude I:

News of Hector’s death spreads: All but King Priam have heard. Who will tell him?

Scene 2

It falls to Paris to tell his father the news of Hector’s death and mutilation at the hands of Achilles. He vows to kill Achilles in return; whereupon Priam contemplates the unbreakable cycle of vengeance. Hector killed Patroclus, and Achilles in revenge killed Hector; Paris will in turn seek revenge by killing Achilles; who will then kill Paris? Why was he not killed as a baby?

1. The 3-fold nature of woman is a Freudian conception.

It was the fatal flaw of pity. Yet why should one son (Hector) be allowed to live only if it meant the death of the other (Paris)? Life is a trick, without meaning.

Interlude 2:

Instrumental music, to suggest the passage of time; the past leading to the present, and both making up the future.

Scene 3

Hermes brings Priam, unarmed, to Achilles’ tent to ransom his son Hector’s body. Achilles is moved by pity for the old man-(that ‘fatal flaw’ again?)-and grants his request. They drink, and their deaths are foretold, Achilles at the hands of Paris, Priam at the hands of Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus.

Interlude 3:

Hermes prepares the audience for Priam’s death and transformation: ‘He already breathes an air as from another planet.’ [for this idea of transformation, compare the myth of the journey of the soul in Plato’s Phaedrus (247 foll.)].

Scene 4

Paris kills Achilles, but too late, since Troy is being sacked by the Greeks and is already burning. Once more the three women come, this time to care for Priam; once more Hecuba and Andromache give place to Helen, who is tenderly addressed by Priam, after he has sent out Paris to a hero’s death in the flames of Troy. Priam kisses Helen, who he knows will now return to Greece. He himself then sinks before the altar, where Achilles’s son Neoptolemus, as had been foretold, runs him through with a sword.


In telling the story from the Trojan point of view, thus making the old king the central character of his opera, Tippett deliberately challenges us to look at the theme of war through the eyes of compassion and understanding. Priam loved his son Hector just as much as Achilles loved his friend Patroclus; more, if anything, as he was older; therefore he suffered just as much when he was killed. Yet, if we try to find the answer to this human riddle we will not succeed, since human conduct has no satisfactory rational explanation. Priam may curse, he may invoke all the gods he knows, he may turn this way or that, but it is not given to him to understand. War has no meaning. Yet, paradoxically, he does not need to understand in order to provide the solution. He goes to Achilles himself, using only the weapon of pity for an old man. This not only achieves its purpose, but it is a course of action which brings no retribution in its train. On the contrary: the two drink together.

Another thing Priam does. He first of all dismisses Paris; and by doing this he shows that wars are fought by the young, not by the old, and that his function is not on the field of battle. Then he forgives Helen. This is entirely in keeping with the end of Homer’s Iliad, and lends a truly noble air to the end of the opera. Helen had been the ostensible cause of the whole war, as a result of which Priam’s city was destroyed; yet he forgives her. He might well have asked her ‘Why?’; But such a question, as we know, can have no answer. The opera ends with the chords depicting the theme of war, sounding, very quietly this time, for Priam himself. His death at the close of the opera is simply the final stage of that transformation, which had already begun.

The fusion of opposing principles is everywhere apparent in King Priam: life and death, friend and foe, heaven and hell, choice and destiny. Tippett’s artistry is a receptiveness to the inner as well as the outer meaning of events. He is concerned with the mysterious nature of human choice; and the character whose choice is most central to the whole story is Paris. Paris is much more than a sort of epic Casanova; he represents that archetypal principle of search, inspiration, passion. But because his search is directed towards a fantasy, an unreal phantom [For the idea of Helen as a phantom, cf. Plato’s Republic (IX, 585); also Euripides’ Helena], it can never be fulfilled. His cry ‘Is there a choice at all?’ might well be the motto of the whole opera.

In Act I Priam chooses to have his son killed; later Paris chooses to go to Troy, and Priam chooses to accept this decision. Most important of all, Helen chooses Paris, Paris chooses Helen. It seems they are driven by a force stronger than themselves; yet the choice is theirs. In Act II Achilles chooses not to fight, Patroclus chooses to take his place; whereupon Achilles chooses to avenge Patroclus’ death. In Act III each of the three women chooses her loyalty; Paris chooses to avenge Hector, his brother; finally, Priam makes the two culminating choices of the opera, to confront Achilles and to forgive Helen. In every case, the choice was freely taken, freely followed by the deed; in no case could the result of the deed be foreseen.

The opera moves forward to its appointed end with an irresistible sweep of inevitability. In Act I the events and the premonitions surrounding Paris, all the more ominous for being vague and unspecified, pile up and accumulate a dramatic tension that erupts, starkly and violently, in Act II, the ‘war act’. The resolution occurs in Act III, in which the implications of what has gone before are seen in their true light. This dramatic inevitability is matched by a remarkable structural cohesion and balance. The number three is used as a unifying factor. There are three acts, two of them with three scenes. Three male characters (Priam, Hector, Paris) balance three female characters (Hecuba, Andromache, Helen), and they each have trios. The Chorus consists of three people (old man, nurse, guard). At the opening, the introductory chorus occurs three times; at the close of the opera, the ‘war’ chord is sounded three times; at the centre of the most violent part of the opera, Achilles’ war cry rings out three times.

There are also several points of cross-reference and symbolism in the opera, which serve to unite the parts into a single compelling whole. For instance, Priam’s attempt to mediate between his sons’ quarrel is balanced by Hecuba’s attempt to keep Andromache and Helen apart. Again, on the psychological level, the flames that consume Troy symbolize the burning flame of love that consume Helen and Paris, that ecstasy that brings tragedy in its wake.

But far the greatest unifying factor is the music itself. That fusion of opposites in the personalities of the story is matched by the fusion of words and music, consonance and dissonance, present and past time, that make up Tippett’s score. The characters are contrasted by means of motif and instrumentation. The theme of war and killing is given to the brass, woodwind, and timpani. This feature of the orchestration reaches its climax in Act II, the war act, when Tippett leaves out the strings altogether, except the piano and guitar. The latter is used for Achilles’ sentimental and nostalgic song. The idea of the home, on the other hand, and the domestic love of women, is expressed by the strings. Hecuba’s motif is given out by the violins, in agitated sextuplets, while that of Andromache is a more intensely lyrical melody for cellos alone. The love of Helen and Paris is expressed by flutes, the instrument with traditional erotic associations. The harp is used to suggest the imagery of dreams, and the world of the unconscious. Flute and harp together are used, in Interlude 3 of Act III, for the music of the transformation of Priam.

Tippett’s instinct for instrumental timbre is nowhere more apparent than in the score of King Priam generally, and in his use of the piano in particular. The opera almost amounts to a compendium of writing for the piano, which curiously chameleon-like tends to vary its nature according to its surroundings. The use of piano and xylophone is especially remarkable, and reminds us of Yeats’s ‘drum, flute and zither’ [see Moving into Aquarius] - or rhythm, melody and accompaniment; the rhythm in this case being provided by the somewhat hard and percussive sound of the xylophone.

The underlying motif of the entire opera is made up of two fourths, a perfect fourth with an augmented fourth superimposed. This is used either melodically or chordally to express the theme of war, violence, killing. If its appearance is gradual in Act I, in Act II, as we would expect, it is the main formative element. It opens the act, played ff on the timpani and it brings the act to a blood-curdling close, when it is used to form Achilles’ war-cry.

But in addition to this, the augmented fourth is also used to express the love between Helen and Paris (which takes place off-stage, as this is not a Romantic opera). The love-scene at the end of Act I begins with it. Paris’s lyrical outburst later in the same scene is built round it.

The implication of this is quite clear, namely that the addition of the augmented fourth to the perfect fourth produced the motif of war in just as direct a way as the love of Helen and Paris led to war.

In Act I, as we have already said, the motif is introduced subtly; only later do we recall its use, and realize its full implication. It is present in Scene I in the violin music which accompanies Hecuba’s outburst. In Scene 3, it appears when the identical passage is played on the timpani to introduce each of the three goddesses: and again when Helen is on the point of committing herself to Paris. This reminds us of the opening of the opera, when a solo oboe had played over the crib where the infant Paris lay. Now an oboe again plays, at the words ‘how can I choose?’, but this time a more menacing phrase.

Once the fateful choice has been made, the motif appears more blatantly, boldly stated by the violins. The motif insistently dominates Act II. It forms a biting, chordal accompaniment to Paris’s defence of himself against Hector in Scene I. It gives lyrical shape to Achilles’ song in Scene 2; it is used with overwhelming effect, both horizontally in the melody and vertically in the harmony, to build up the three-part texture of the hymn to Zeus, which consists of 36 bars of imitative counterpoint, to a brilliant accompaniment of brass and woodwind.

In Act III Tippett uses the motif retrospectively, to remind us of the theme of war, which is the cause from which the remaining events in the opera stem. In Scene I, when Helen says to Hecuba (referring to Andromache) ‘Let her rave’, the motif, played very quietly, just once, as a chord, is enough to remind us that Andromache at least has cause to rave, as her husband Hector is about to be killed. A little later, when Helen sings ‘Women like you cannot know what men may feel with me’, again the motif sounds out, to remind us what the consequences were of her adultery. The trio of the three women, like that of the men in the previous act, is also built horizontally and vertically round the motif. This trio, however, has a delicate, filigree accompaniment of strings and harp. The notes of the motif are such as to lead to an effect of bitonality-E flat major and D major-and Tippett makes magical use of this tendency.

The juxtaposition of two keys a semitone apart also explains the prevalent use of the interval of the second, which is apparent throughout the opera; for instance, at the very opening of the work, in the trumpet fanfare.

At the close of Scene 3, in which Achilles and Priam look ahead to their own deaths, the motif appears again on the timpani, but with an important alteration, a diminuendo. Thus is the final transformation foreshadowed. This occurs during the third interlude, in which the motif is played on the harp as an accompaniment.

When it appears as a sudden brief outburst by the brass, at the beginning of Scene 4, it comes as a shock. The chords introduce Paris the soldier, who has killed Achilles. Thereafter, the motif appears metamorphosed. The three women appear one by one, and each one is introduced, as she had been in Act I, by an identical statement of the motif, made up of three parts each in diminution.

From then on the motif is sustained more or less continuously, either by the strings, or by the off-stage chorus. The timpani sound it as a final ostinato figure, ff. marcatissimo, as Priam is killed; then a moment of stillness; then, as if from eternity itself, it sounds three times, very quietly on the celesta, xylophone, piano, solo cello and double basses. It is as if a bell has tolled, not just for Priam, but for the whole of warring mankind.

After the comparatively direct impact of King Priam, Tippett reverted to a more individual and personal interpretation of contemporary opera for his third work, The Knot Garden (premiere at Covent Garden in December, 1970, conducted by Colin Davis, produced by Peter Hall - formerly Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company). His libretto for this opera is in direct descent from The Midsummer Marriage, and invites participation as well as rapport of understanding from the audience. The ‘singularities’ return, and Tippett’s third opera is a synthesis of several past traditions into a contemporary setting.

The title refers to the square gardens of Elizabethan days, with their patterns of flowers or shrub-beds. The ground-plans of these gardens look exactly like Eastern mandalas. The Elizabethan gardens were either lovers’ meeting-places or mazes where people became lost. So in this opera the archetypal division is drawn between the rose-garden and the labyrinth. As the personal relations between the characters become warm, the scene appears to turn towards the rose garden; as they become cold, the scene appears more like the cage of a labyrinth.

Of the two main dramatic traditions which underlie Tippett’s libretto, the first is the Shakespeare of the late ironic tragi-comedies, like Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Tempest. These may be described as comedies of forgiveness. Everything is awry, even wicked, cruel and immoral, and can only be restored at the end of the play through an act of contrition, and consequent forgiveness. There is a long, late mediaeval, pre-Shakespearean, Christian tradition of tragi-comedy, which is largely Spanish; Shakespeare introduces a more humanist approach, though his characters often appear arbitrary. Thus, for instance, Isabella in Measure for Measure is a too-moral heroine, who has to forgive and marry, by order of the Duke, a man who has committed every sort of crime. In The Tempest, forgiveness is suggested to the all-powerful Prospero by Ariel, who recalls his master to a sense of humanity. And even Caliban is to have a measure of pardon.

The other tradition behind The Knot Garden is the Shaw of Heartbreak House. This play, which Shaw wrote after seeing Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, is a pattern of cross-relationships within a comedy of social manners. The Knot Garden could well be an operatic Heartbreak House in the sort of permissive young society which Shaw foresaw in Too True to be Good.

The operatic tradition is that of Cosi fan tutte, which has the same almost arbitrary patterns of relationship, and in which everything is awry until the very end, when the women are contrite and the men forgive. In this theatrical genre the story-line is generally of less importance than the patterns of relationship. The opening can often be arbitrary, such as Don Alfonso’s wager in Cosi fan tutte; and the end occurs simply when all the ‘games’ have been played-as in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is a recent example of this tradition.

These ‘games’ imply a fixed set of characters, like pieces in chess. There is also some implied relationship between the characters at the start, which permutates as the work proceeds. In Act I of The Knot Garden these initial relationships are set out under the subtitle ‘confrontation’. The underlying emotional insecurities, and even cruelties, first reach a climax when the too-moral Denise (a character taken from the examples of women in the French Resistance) denounces the rest, in a big aria. The only alleviation to this is a Blues, a big ensemble.

In Act II, the ‘Labyrinth’ of the sub-title is in full effect, and the emotional violence breaks surface, as if in a nightmare. This act consists of a series of dialogues and duets. Only at the end of the act is there a hint of alleviation; this is a love-song, which first recalls the nostalgia of Schubert, then the nostalgia of the present day. The archetypal rose garden forms and fades.

In Act III, subtitled ‘Charade’, the ‘games’ as such begin, in the form of charades from The Tempest. Five of the seven characters take on parts from The Tempest in play scenes alluded to by Prospero. These are not real scenes from Shakespeare’s play; of the four ‘games’, two are hinted at in Shakespeare, one has an exactly opposite outcome, one is not mentioned at all. But these charades are, as in Albee’s play, a kind of therapy. The final ensemble, matching the Blues of Act I, deals with the very brief moment of mutual love and acceptance (‘Come unto these yellow sands’) before separation and departure.

The epilogue for the man and wife is, in spirit not style, Blake. When we are ‘all imagination’ and not imprisoned by memory, we create the world around us, even to the stars. And the final scene, of man and wife about to join, is taken, in form not words, from the real Virginia Woolf. It comes at the end of her last novel Between the Acts-which would have made an alternative title for The Knot Garden.

Though the opera has no chorus, and only seven characters, the musical gestures are often large, commensurate with a big theatre. The music itself is multifarious and rich, and all the roles are important. The social problems implied, such as black and white relationships, and homosexuality, are not the essence of the text; yet the statements the characters make about these matters, out of their direct experience of them, are real.

The techniques of film-cutting have suggested the ‘jumps’ from situation to situation, and scene to scene. But film can cut instantaneously, while opera, for musical reasons, cannot. The ‘cut’ or ‘dissolve’ has therefore been provided with a tiny measure of strictly impersonal and unchanging music, which becomes then part of the score. The stage scene at any moment-what the spectators see-is never described in the text, and there are no stage directions beyond some cocktail glasses and a chessboard. The Garden, by implication, is huge, and the night-sky immense; but the cruel dialogues of Act II are hemmed in by their intensity so that the stage space has become temporarily a point.

In his third opera, which again presents contemporary opera with the challenge of a fresh dimension, as The Midsummer Marriage did, Tippett achieves a remarkable synthesis between past tradition and present culture. He adheres absolutely to his belief that contemporary opera is ultimately dependent on the contemporary theatre and indeed contemporary literature, and life in the widest sense. If we accept Dent’s classification of opera into mythical, heroic and comic, Tippett’s The Knot Garden belongs to the first and third. It is certainly not heroic, as King Priam is. Indeed, Miranda’s ‘brave new world’ is shown to be an illusion; after the four ‘games’ are played, the only solution that is possible lies through forgiveness.



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