Thursday, November 22, 2012

Benjamin Britten


Today is the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and also the birthday of the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

Throughout next year there will be a multitude of performances and analysis of Britten’s music, including a nation-wide project involving over 75,000 school-children who will be coordinated to sing simultaneously on his birthday. There's even to be a 50 pence coin issued in 2013 with a portrait of Britten on its reverse, such will be the high-profile centenary celebrations of arguably, the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

With its close geographical proximity to Lowestoft, the east coast town where Britten was born, Norwich and its rich musical heritage played no small part in Benjamin Britten’s musical development. The city is home to England's oldest music festival and several early musical compositions by Britten were premièred there.  

Benjamin Britten exhibited all the traits associated with a child prodigy. He had his first piano lessons aged four and began writing music aged five, nurtured by his mother’s amateur talent. Such was young Britten’s musical precocity that he was soon acquiring and studying orchestral scores of major works of classical music. His viola teacher, Audrey Alston who played in the Norwich Quartet, obtained tickets for him to hear the Ravel string quartet in Norwich as well as the Beethoven E minor (opus 59 no. 2) which the ten-year old school-boy described as ‘absolutely ripping’. More importantly, Audrey Alston also chaperoned the budding composer to a concert in October 1924, at the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival, to hear Frank Bridge conducting his orchestral suite The Sea (1911). Britten, aged ten, latter described himself as being ‘knocked sideways’ upon hearing the music of his future teacher and mentor. Audrey Alston subsequently introduced her pupil to Frank Bridge (1879-1941) and the young composer later took lessons from him. Britten's first published work, Sinfonietta (1932) is dedicated to his mentor, Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge (1937) written for string orchestra and the Four Sea Interludes which intersperse the action of the opera Peter Grimes (1945) are compositions which pays homage to his influential music-teacher. 

Like his mentor, Britten rejected the 'Little Englander' perspective of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in favour of mainstream continental influences. Much of Britten's music is a fine equilibrium between the influence of more progressive European composers such as Mahler, Berg, Bartok, and Stravinsky, counter-balanced with the best of the tradition of English music-making, an aesthetic choice which has reaped dividends for his musical legacy. 

Britten’s musical genius developed in 1930 with his A Hymn to the Virgin a choral work composed when convalescing from an illness at Gresham’s Public School in North Norfolk. During his boarding at Gresham's there must also have been occasions when the young school-boy passed through Norwich when returning home to Lowestoft during the school holidays, or visited the city to purchase one of the many 78 r.p.m. shellac discs or orchestral scores which he avidly collected throughout his life. A Hymn to the Virgin was first performed in January 1931 at the church of Saint John's, Lowestoft. Many years later, Britten wrote Hymn to Saint Peter (op.55) for the quincentenary anniversary of the church of Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich.  C.J.R.Coleman, who had been organist at St. John’s Lowestoft in the 1930's, was by 1955, organist at Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich. Coleman and his son, with young Benjamin and his father, had made music together during Britten's childhood. Britten held a deep attachment to memories of his youth, and the composition for St.Peter's was, like several others, written in gratitude for early encouragement from his mentors.

With the opportunity to enlist at the Royal School of Music in 1931, Britten’s knowledge of music, through study and attendance at concerts in London developed considerably. Upon completion of his studies at the R.C.M. he was however dissuaded from travelling to Vienna in order to study composition further under the tuition of Alan Berg. However, sometime in 1932 Britten met another composer he also admired, Arnold Schoenberg.  

Britten returned to Norwich to conduct the first performance of his Simple Symphony for string orchestra in 1934. Recycling and re-arranging various juvenile compositions, nearly all of which were written between the young age of nine to twelve, Simple Symphony indulges in youthful humour, heavily hinted in each movement's titles- Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Serenade and Frolicsome Finale. It was dedicated to his viola teacher, Audrey Alston. Britten's first fully professional engagement however was in 1936 at the Norwich Festival, where he conducted the première of his song-cycle for soloist and orchestra Our Hunting Fathers. It features a dominant theme in Britten's music, mankind's inhumanity. In the first of Britten's many song-cycles, it is cruelty towards animals and the barbaric blood sport of hunting, as its title suggests, which is strongly condemned. The libretto of Our Hunting Fathers was supplied by the poet W. H. Auden. The work is startling modern, influenced by the lieder of Mahler. 

Britten travelled to America in 1939, however his sojourn in America was short-lived, he soon became home-sick and returned to England in 1942. The sea is a big theme in Britten's music , its featured prominently in Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, but it was while actually at  at sea, in the cramped conditions of a cabin, avoiding ice-bergs and U-Boats on the way, that  Britten composed A Ceremony of Carols. Written for boy's choir and harp, each of the nine poignant medieval carols besides being technically demanding, has a magical innocence and a winter-like atmosphere rarely  evoked in English music. A Ceremony of Carols was first performed in Norwich during the darkest days of World War II, December 1942. Since its first performance A Ceremony of Carols has become one of the most recorded of all Britten's works and dozens of recordings are currently available of one of his most popular works and continues to be performed at Advent at Saint Peter's, Mancroft, Norwich. 

Britten’s great international success came in 1945 with the opera Peter Grimesa work which brought the composer world-wide fame and which single-handedly re-invented English opera. Peter Grimes is the first of several operas by Britten which explore the theme of the individual who suffers from social prejudice. With his life-long pacifism (he registered as a conscientious objector upon returning to England  from America in 1942) Britten could easily relate to the plight of the outsider who is castigated by society. The central character of Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice explores the relationship and conflict between the outsider and society, each in quite different ways.

In addition to his anti-war beliefs, Britten’s open relationship with the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) his partner for almost forty years, also caused him to be the subject of prejudice (homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967). In reality however, Britten and Pears relationship is a love story which is testimony to love enduring in the face of, at times, intense social prejudice. Britten wrote some of his finest music with the voice of Peter Pears in mind and the musical sensibilities of both Pears and Britten were considerably enhanced in their mutual artistic support to each other. Together they established the world-renowned Aldeburgh music festival, settling permanently in the Suffolk coastal town from 1947 until Britten's death in 1976.

Britten’s association with Norwich continued when he included the ancient, medieval city as a setting of one of the acts of his opera Gloriana. Written as part of the celebrations for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Britten's opera features a visit made by Queen Elizabeth I to the city in 1578. Act Two of Gloriana is set against the back-drop of the the flint-knapped Guildhall at Norwich. Elizabeth I is welcomed by the City Recorder, a masque is performed which she and the Royal court watch. In total six dances, including a Morris dance are performed. Personifications of Time and Concord are among the principle characters in a masque which, accompanied by a chorus of rustic country maids and fishermen, concludes the entertainment with a homage to the Queen.

Biographical details of Britten’s life reveal the fact that there was hardly a single year of his life in which he was not ill, often quite seriously, and towards the end of life, fatally, nor is there hardly a single year in his life in which he did not travel extensively abroad. He often combined a holiday with performing, accompanying his life-time partner Peter Pears in song-recitals on the piano. He visited what was the Soviet Union no less than seven times, becoming a close friend of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, his wife, the mezzo-soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who once said to him in broken English, ‘You great composer, I little composer’. Rostropovich and Britten's music-making is now legendary and Britten wrote more music for the Russian cellist than any other musician other than Pears. His friendship with Shostakovich was also rather special by all accounts. Shostakovich gave Britten gifts of recordings of his symphonies, while towards the end of his life Britten granted Shostakovich a private view of his work-in-progress score of his last opera Death in Venice, a rare and intimate gesture which he granted to few.

One of Britten’s most distinguished musical admirers wrote in her diary for 1970 -

‘The record of Les Illuminations has arrived and Ruth & I have played it several times, & listened with the greatest joy. There is no sound here except the shushing of the sea & the crying of the seabirds, & this music is exactly right for the atmosphere here of sea & sky & silence. I find it extraordinary moving’. 

Britten’s admirer was Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002). Although in the 1930's Britten held communist sympathies, in common with many artists in the 1930's, his relationship with the Royal family, in particular with  the Queen Mother developed throughout the decades of 60's and early 70's into a respectful relationship. Britten and Pears not only performed at the Royal Estate of Sandringham in Norfolk, but Britten became the first composer to ever be awarded the honour of Life-Peer. 

Britten was no musical elitist and much of his music is arranged for the ease of amateur performance. While he admitted to no personal liking for pop music he nevertheless kept abreast of the latest developments in English music, stating in 1968 - 

Everything I read about the Beatles gives me pleasure. They have a wit and they have a directness – a freshness of approach which gives me a great pleasure, and I also think they are frightfully funny. 

and a copy of the Beatles long-playing vinyl disc A Hard Day's Night (1964) is listed as once in Britten's vast record collection.

Britten had an innate ear for literary texts to set to music and was one of the 20th century’s most well-read composers. His first opera was based upon the poetry of fellow Suffolk artist, George Crabbe. Other notable literary figures Britten set to music include Rimbaud, Keats, Blake, Shakespeare, Henry James, Herman Melville and W.H.Auden with whom he collaborated on a number of occasions.

Like many school-children I was disinclined from listening to Benjamin Britten’s music after over-exposure to his pedagogic Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. His music struck me as traditional and conservative in nature and there seemed to be more interesting music to discover and explore; my favourite British contemporary music L.P recording as a teenager Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double-string Orchestra (1936) and Symphony no.2 (1953); however in 1973, during what was one of the last rehearsals for a performance of  Britten's Church parable Noyes Fludde as part of what was the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival (now the N&N Festival) a sudden hush fell upon the rehearsal at Saint Andrew's Hall, a surprise visitor had arrived, the composer himself had called to thank all the boys and girls for their hard work rehearsing. The photo at the top of this post is how I remember him. The photo below is of Britten wearing his school cricket blazer and cap, aged circa 13.

I've only covered a brief review of Britten's music up to the international success of his opera Peter Grimes in this post. Rather than waste any more of the reader's time, and far more informative on Britten than words, is my exhortation to seek out and hear Britten's music. A large percentage of it is vocal, choral or operatic, while the themes of the Sea, the social outcast, innocence betrayed and Man's inhumanity to man are often encountered, especially in his operas. The Britten 100 web-page allows the  new listener to the composer's music to select samples by  genre, mood, instrument and tempo. Here's a brief list of Britten's music which I've found rewarding and recommend hearing.

Peter Grimes
Four Sea Interludes
Pasacaglia op.33b
Simple Symphony
Violin Concerto
Piano Concerto
Serenade for horn, strings and tenor
String Quartets 2 and 3
Prince of the Pagodas
A Ceremony of Carols

Books consulted

The Faber Pocket Guide to Britten - John Bridcut pub. Faber & Faber 2010
An accessible book, full of facts, insights and trivia about Britten.
Highly recommended

Benjamin Britten by Michael Oliver pub. Phaidon Press 1996


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