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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 , ‘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 , , ] 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
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
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.
‘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.’
‘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
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).
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 ). 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 ( + 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 ), 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
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 ); 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 ).
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 (-), which provides a Trio-like
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 ). 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 (-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 ); 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
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
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.)
(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
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
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).
Bars 447-504 A varied recapitulation by inversion
of Section 2, starting with timpani and unison violins.
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.
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.
Bars 549-607 A slow transition, with a prominent
passage for flutes foreshadowing the material of
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.
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.
Bars 866-1008 This section corresponds to Section
8, with the interludes omitted, and with transformed material.
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.
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
Bars 1202-1215 This final, and shortest, section
is scored for woodwind alone, in pianissimo, and refers back to
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
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
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
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.
1 Sonata form
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)
classical orchestra, with bass clarinet. Timpani has
a solo part.
1 Sonata form
3 Scherzo (presto, with a Trio in canon)
4 Sectional, beginning and ending maestoso, with a
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
11 Trionfale con moto (attacca 12):
13 L’Istesso tempo;
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.
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
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
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
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  + 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  + 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
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 , to give colour to the word ‘guilt’, and again
in scene II, starting at + 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  + 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
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 . 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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’
1. In spite of warnings of the inevitable vengeance
that will follow, he chooses Aphrodite.
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.
Hermes takes the old man (thereby also the audience)
over to the Greek camp, to Achilles’ tent.
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.
A threat to Troy is foreseen.
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.
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.
News of Hector’s death spreads: All but King Priam
have heard. Who will tell him?
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.
Instrumental music, to suggest the passage of time;
the past leading to the present, and both making up the future.
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.
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.)].
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
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
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
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
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
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.