Friday, November 22, 2013

Benjamin Britten:
Centenary Reflections (1)

by Paul Banks
NOTE: Byron Adams's “For Benjamin Britten, Upon the Centenary of His Birth,” will appear next in this series.
Ben and Peter. And Aaron.

As we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (22 November 1913), the place of his music in the canon of the Anglophone world and beyond seems secure and relatively unproblematic (as the Britten 100 site demonstrates). Many of the vocal works, particularly the operas, are now often performed and recorded; that they were tailored with care for the gifts of very different types of singers—from Sophie Wyss to Galina Vishnevskaya, Kathleen Ferrier to Janet Baker, and for the wholly individual vocal talent of his partner, Peter Pears—has not discouraged later generations of singers from taking Britten’s works into their repertoire. The fact that his idiom remained, for the most part, accessible and deeply rooted in the traditions of his immediate predecessors is no longer a source of anxiety.

Sixty years ago, however, the situation was rather more complex. In England, a number of influential critics still found his music too modern and challenging, while younger colleagues with modernist leanings such as Donald Mitchell, Hans Keller, and Paul Hamburger sought to validate Britten’s achievement by asserting his connections to tradition, thereby securing his place in a monolithic and teleological view of music history. In fact Britten appropriated techniques and sounds not only from Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berg, but also from the traditions of Balinese gamelan and the Japanese Noh. Moreover, such acquisitions did not supplant existing components in his repertoire of musical resources, but co-existed with them. It is wholly characteristic of Britten that two instrumental works—Lachrymae (viola and piano, 1950) and Nocturnal (guitar, 1963)—which are radical in their transformation of melodic patterns into harmonic elements, were based on songs by English Renaissance composer John Dowland.

In the early 1950s, Britten himself seemed rather unconcerned about his place within larger patterns of musical history. Ten years later, in one of his rare excursions into extended prose, On Receiving the First Aspen Award (1964), he showed a rare insight into the dilemma faced by many composers in the immediate post-war years: 
There are many dangers which hedge round the unfortunate composer: pressure groups which demand true proletarian music, snobs who demand the latest avant-garde tricks; critics who are already trying to document today for tomorrow . . . . These people are dangerous—not because they are necessarily of any importance in themselves, but because they make the composer, above all the young composer, self-conscious, and instead of writing his own music, music which springs naturally from his gift and personality, he may be frightened into writing pretentious nonsense or deliberate obscurity.
That Britten articulated his sentiments in a speech delivered at Aspen seems particularly apt: his years in Canada and the USA (1939–42) coincided with a crucial stage in his evolution as a composer. Moving away from relatively overt references to continental modernism that characterized his works in the early- to mid-1930s, Britten embraced a more communicative style in such works as the concluding passacaglia of the Violin Concerto (1939) and the Sinfonia da requiem (1940). This stylistic shift allowed the composer to work on a larger scale and to invest his music with greater musical and emotional richness. His friendship with Aaron Copland (from 1938) undoubtedly contributed to this development. Works by the American composer such as The Second Hurricane and El Salón México made a profound impression; after hearing the latter at the 1938 ISCM Festival in London, Britten wrote to Lennox Berkeley, “it’s a grand piece: . . . what a relief it was . . . after all that pretentious balderdash we had to listen to.” Copland’s conviction that “simplicity was the way out of isolation for the contemporary composer” undoubtedly struck a chord with Britten on an artistic level, especially since for him (as for Copland) that sense of isolation was reinforced by social and legal responses to other aspects of his life: his sexuality and his politics.

Britten's strong desire for belonging lay behind the most familiar facet of his discussion of the composer’s role in the Aspen address:
I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives’ (to use Berenson’s phrase). I do not write for posterity. . . . I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots in where I live and work. And I only came to realise that in California in 1941.
That Britten defined his usefulness solely in terms of his creative work is understandable. Indeed, his conviction that composing formed the central part of his life formed at an early age:
At a tennis party in my youth I was asked what I was going to do when I grew up—what job I was aiming at. “I am going to be a composer,” I said. “Yes, but what else?” was the answer.
Britten was right: he did become a composer, and one whose music shows every sign of continuing to connect with audiences; unwittingly, so was his interlocutor, because Britten became much else as well. By the early 1940s, it was clear that he was an exceptional accompanist, and in the 1950s he emerged as a conductor of rare insight. However, these talents clearly grew out of Britten’s innate musical aptitude: less expected was his skill as a leader. Naturally shy, even reserved, Britten nevertheless inspired great loyalty from some colleagues, and with their aid he founded an opera company, the English Opera Group (1947–80) and a festival at Aldeburgh (1948– ). Other endeavors included the construction of a concert hall at Snape, near Aldeburgh (1967) and the provision of crucial start-up funding for Faber Music (1964– ). Not a teacher in any formal sense—although composers and performers such as Robert Saxton and Graham Johnson have acknowledged the value of the informal advice he offered—Britten encouraged various educational programs, not least the formation in 1948 of the Opera Studio under the auspices of the English Opera Group, and the masterclasses by Peter Pears that evolved into the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies (now the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme). These and many other initiatives supplemented Britten’s creative output, forming one of the most diverse, substantial, and internationally significant legacies of any British composer.

Paul Banks is Professor of Historical Musicology and Head of Special Collections at the Royal College of Music, London. Between 1989 and 1998 he was Librarian at the Britten-Pears Library, and has published on Busoni, Britten, Berlioz, Mahler, and Hans Rott.

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