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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Oct 8, 2013

International Britten

When Benjamin Britten was awarded the first Aspen Award in 1964, he took the opportunity to articulate the ideals that had driven him throughout his career, then already nearing its end. “I certainly write music for human beings,” he wrote, “directly and deliberately.” He wrote music for specific occasions and performance environments, and for individual performers. He said,

I can find…nothing wrong with offering to my fellow-men music
which may inspire them or comfort them, which may touch them
or entertain them, even educate them—directly and with intention.
On the contrary, it is the composer’s duty, as a member of society,
to speak to or for his fellow human beings.

In 1964, those were fighting words. Even until quite recently, Britten was often discussed with a certain defensiveness. His “conservative” musical language and adherence to traditional genres were all too easily seen as naïve or anachronistic. His commitment to accessibility and social function could devalue his music’s high-cultural status, and he could be seen as oblivious to the challenges to such ideals launched by the avant-garde. Much has changed, though, and on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Britten’s cultural position seems all but unassailable, both at home and abroad. Britten’s quest for a musical middle-road seems if anything more timely, and the ways in which he pursued that quest—particularly through education and media—seem in retrospect subtle and complex, taking account of the rapidly changing social and cultural landscape in which he found himself. His music also powerfully explores a rich set of themes: the innocence of childhood and the creeping, all-pervasive nature of evil; pacifism, violence, and the workings of power; marginalized sexualities and the experience of otherness; citizenship and social connection; and the barriers to open communication in modernity, an issue which for Britten crystallizes around homosexuality’s restricted expression in the mid-twentieth century. 

These are the themes that occupy many of Britten’s songs and operas. There is the sense of marginalization and even persecution in Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), and, in a more comic vein, Albert Herring (1947). There is the sense of pervasive evil and guilt in The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945), both written immediately after the Second World War, and in Serenade (1943), with its setting of William Blake’s “Oh rose, thou art sick!” Forbidden desires emerge in many of the operas, as well as a sense of blocked communication, from the stuttering Billy Budd, accused of expressing political opinions he doesn’t have, to Aschenbach of Death in Venice (1973), with his writer’s block and silent spectatorship.

Britten’s self-fashioning as an opera composer was deliberate and explicit, but in many ways it was an odd direction for him to choose. Perhaps he was modeling himself after a favorite composer, Alban Berg, whose Wozzeck (1925) was one of the great operatic successes of the 1920s. But there had never been a strong tradition of British opera, and little in Britten’s music of the 1930s and early 1940s would have led one to expect a full-fledged opera like Peter Grimes. He had written a motley collection of music for stage and screen, including incidental music for political plays by W. H. Auden, and scores for documentary film and a feature film, Love From a Stranger (1937). His one opera could hardly be seen as a success. Written in collaboration with Auden while they were both living in New York—Britten and his partner Peter Pears had left England in 1939—Paul Bunyan (1941) was Britten’s contribution to American attempts to build a new national operatic tradition. Like many American operas of this period, it was a hybrid, mixing spoken dialogue with sung sections in a dizzying array of styles. Critics were dismissive, and fundamentally suspicious of this intervention by expatriate British artists into an American project. Perhaps most of all, they were bothered by a perceived lack of sincerity or real feeling in Paul Bunyan. This was a common complaint among both American and British critics of Britten’s early works, who accused him of a certain technical ease and superficiality. The American critic Olin Downes wrote in response to Paul Bunyan that Britten’s ingenuity “only palls when he has exhausted devices and is faced with the necessity of saying something that is genuine.” Even his friend, composer Colin McPhee, wrote at the time that “he must search deeper for a more personal, more interesting idiom … good craftsmanship is not enough.”

In one version of Britten’s narrative, he had to return to England to deepen his musical language, rooting his music in local communities (as he claimed in the Aspen Award speech) and to some extent in the English landscape and cultural traditions. And in 1942, after somewhat unhappy stays in New York (first in Long Island, and then in a bohemian household in Brooklyn) and in Los Angeles, he did return. It was while spending the summer of 1941 in Escondido, California, that Britten and Pears felt the pull of home, after coming across an article by E. M. Forster (who would go on to write the libretto for Britten’s Billy Budd) on the Aldeburgh poet George Crabbe. Forster’s article also provided the inspiration for Britten’s first full-scale opera, Peter Grimes, based on a poem by Crabbe. Grimes, like Paul Bunyan, had strong roots in the American operatic scene. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, then conductor of the Boston Symphony, it was meant to be premiered at Tanglewood (where it received its American premiere in 1946, conducted by Leonard Bernstein), and Britten conceived of the opera while in the United States. Some critics have even suggested that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which Britten saw during its 1942 Broadway revival, was an influence. But Grimes came to be seen as a British national opera, thanks in part to the circumstances of its premiere—it was the first opera produced by Sadler’s Wells (the forerunner of the present-day English National Opera) after the end of the Second World War, and heralded a new era for British opera in the postwar years. Indeed, Britten’s decisions to return to England and to write operas are intertwined, as Britten imagined his role in the development of British music to some extent through the genre of opera.

Upon his return, Britten found himself in a rather grim wartime London. After successfully applying for status as a conscientious objector, he was assigned duties with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which kept the London musical scene alive, despite closed opera houses and bombed concert halls, but also sought to bring the arts to a wider audience, organizing performances in provincial venues and in workplaces around the country. Even after the war, CEMA’s democratizing impulse continued to influence Britten’s thinking, and Britten was an active participant in postwar attempts to democratize the arts, in particular through children’s education. Works such as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (composed in 1945 for an educational film), The Little Sweep (1949), and Noye’s Fludde (1958), as well as Britten’s many choral works for children, introduced young people to music appreciation and music-making, and many served double roles as educations in an English cultural heritage. These educational works form a significant part of Britten’s contribution, and have featured strongly in the San Francisco Symphony’s own educational programming since the early 1950s. It was out of a similar set of impulses that Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival soon after the war, in the small fishing town in which he lived, with the goals, at least in part, of providing music for his local community and of rooting music-making in the life of a particular place.

While Britten was finding ways of engaging with a rapidly changing wartime and postwar British society, his work took a noticeable turn towards English themes and subjects. In transit between New York and London, he had started on A Ceremony of Carols (1942) looking to medieval English poetry. Shortly after his return, he composed Serenade (1943), setting a group of English poems drawn from the fifteenth century to the late nineteenth century. Serenade addressed themes of night and landscape, in what might be seen as Britten’s own take on the English pastoral tradition of Ralph Vaughan Williams and nineteenth-century artists such as Samuel Palmer, one of whose paintings graces the cover of the original score. Britten would continue his near-encyclopedic foray into English poetry throughout the 1940s and ’50s: in The Spring Symphony (1949), and in song cycles on Thomas Hardy, William Blake and John Donne, as well as numerous folk-song arrangements. He turned to recognizable English settings and stories too, not only in Grimes, but also in Albert Herring (1947), set in the fictional village of Loxford, and in Gloriana (1953), his opera based on the life of Elizabeth I.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, though, Britten’s orientation became increasingly international. In 1955, he launched on a four-month Asian tour, traveling through Turkey, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Honk Kong, Macau, and Japan.  He presented recitals with Pears, of his own music and others’, but he also did a lot of listening, sitting in on a private recital by Ravi Shankar, for instance, and attending performances of Japanese theater and Indonesian gamelan. It was gamelan that had the most far-reaching effects on his music, but he had actually encountered it before, first by way of McPhee, who had lived in Bali and had written a number of gamelan-influenced works. Britten had already used the sounds of gamelan in his 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw, and they would appear again in many later works, but gamelan’s most extended use is in the ballet Prince of the Pagodas (1957), which he was composing when he began his tour. As Philip Brett has observed, gamelan takes on very specific valences in Britten’s music, and is often associated with themes of sexual danger or temptation in ways that draw on old exoticizing tropes: in Prince of the Pagodas but also in The Turn of the Screw (where it is associated with the ghostly predator Quint), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (1973). But Britten’s engagement with Asian musical traditions was not limited to gamelan, or to this set of themes. In Curlew River (1964), for instance, he drew on Japanese Noh theater and court music (to which he had been introduced in his 1950s tour), exploring elements of ritual and the interconnections between Japanese and medieval Christian elements.

Britten’s visit to Asia was embedded partly in the traditions of nineteenth-century exoticism and Orientalism, and partly in a Cold War discourse of international cooperation. His commitment to the latter, as well as his leftist sympathies, also led him to build relationships with Soviet musicians and to visit the Soviet Union on a number of occasions in the early 1960s. Participating in a festival of British music there in 1963, he generated controversy when he was quoted in the state magazine Pravda as saying that “the artist’s social duty” was “to form, educate, and develop the people’s artistic tastes.” (Britten, one British critic suggested, may not have considered the crucial difference between “people” and “the people,” in his eagerness “to express his solidarity with Russian musicians.”) He developed particularly close friendships with Mtislav Rostropovich and his wife, the singer Galina Vishnevskaya, after meeting the cellist in London in 1960. Britten wrote his Cello Symphony for Rostropovich and went to Moscow to conduct its premiere in 1964. In 1965, Britten and Pears spent their holidays with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya at a camp in Armenia, under the auspices of the Union of Soviet Composers.

The War Requiem (1962) was born, in part, out of this climate of Cold War international cooperation, even while functioning as a memorial to the losses of the Second World War. Commissioned for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962, which had been destroyed by German bombs in 1940, the War Requiem formed part of a larger statement of postwar and Cold War reconciliation at Coventry. Britten had chosen his soloists to represent this mood of reconciliation, inviting the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Pears, and Vishnevskaya. (In a show of Soviet power, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to sing in the British premiere at the last minute, and was replaced by a British soprano.) But the War Requiem was also rooted in Britten’s long commitment to pacifism. War and violence had been thematized in a number of Britten’s works, from the Ballad of Heroes (1939), written to commemorate British members of the International Brigades who died in the Spanish Civil War, to Sinfonia da Requiem (1941) and Still Falls the Rain (1954), and more indirectly in his opera Billy Budd; pacifism would be dealt with most closely in his later television opera Owen Wingrave (1970). But if the War Requiem has often been seen as an overtly pacifist statement, it also seems more subtly to confront the poetics of war memorials, asking how rituals of commemoration worked to erase the real violence of war itself.

In many ways, the War Requiem was Britten’s grandest public statement. For some, its immediate success made it an object of suspicion. Stravinsky said of the War Requiem that “nothing fails like success, or hurts more than the press’s ready certification of a ‘masterpiece’.” For others, the War Requiem was too much of a departure from the more complex emotional and musical worlds of Britten’s operas, and the intimacy of his song cycles. The work, however, arises out of Britten’s very real commitment to public life, as expressed in the Aspen Award speech, and out of his sense of music’s continuing power to communicate. At the same time, many of Britten’s works betray considerably more skepticism about the possibilities of communication and connection, even as they work to overcome these barriers.

These days, Britten’s life seems to generate almost as much public interest as his music. He’s the subject of numerous biographical films and books, in multiple languages, and all of his letters and journals are publicly available, documenting his life in exhaustive detail. He features as a theatrical character in Alan Bennett’s 2009 play The Habit of Art, and he and Pears show up as rather comic figures in Gabriel Kahane’s recent musical February House.

His music too has proved to be enduring. Long-ignored works such as Gloriana and Paul Bunyan have been rediscovered, and even his most familiar operas have proved rich sites for re-interpretation, both in criticism and in performance. And for generations now, his children’s music has been formative, leaving a deep mark for many listeners, as can be seen in Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom, a meditation on childhood by way of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (which Anderson himself performed as a child). Such reinventions are testaments to the richness and variety of Britten’s music, and to his goals of finding forms of connection, however fragile.—Heather Wiebe


Heather Wiebe is Lecturer in Music at King’s College, London, and author of Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press).