Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Benjamin Britten 1: The 20th Century Mozart

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) are the only two 20th century composers whose operas have become staples of the repertory in opera houses worldwide, but in my perfect world, their works would be replaced by those of Leos Janacek (1854-1928) and Benjamin Britten above (1913-1976), whose music only sounds better with each passing year.

Britten was an English middle-class mama's boy, the youngest of four kids with a dentist father, who happened to be a freakishly gifted child when it came to music. He started composing as soon as he could write, which was about the age of four, and his singing mother would hold evening recitals in their home with Ben on piano accompanying mom in various themes: Brahms, Beethoven, or "modern music" consisting of Scriabin and Schoenberg.

According to the wonderful book "Britten's Children" by John Bridcut:
"Childhood friend Basil Reeve remembered, 'She was the queen bee that controlled the outfit', he says, 'and you were allowed in and out. It was almost absurd - like being at boarding-school, where everything is controlled.'...most days Edith Britten required her son to play Wagner's Siegfried Idyll to her as she rested in the drawing room in the early afternoon - which he did at the piano, from the miniature full score.

Reeve remembers that Edith Britten had 'a pleasant singing voice', but she sang with 'an unusual sound'. Many years later he heard Peter Pears sing, and the particular quality of Pears's tenor reminded him immediately of Mrs. Britten's soprano."

Britten spent a couple of years in a public school, where he began his lifelong dedication to political pacifism. He was privately tutored by the British composer Frank Bridge, before going to the Royal College of Music in London with a composition scholarship at age 16. His composition teachers, John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams, thought him too clever by half. Graduating at age 20, Britten wanted to study with Alban Berg, but his parents were advised by somebody at the college that Berg was 'immoral.' According to Humphrey Carpenter's biography,
"I said at home during the holidays, 'I am going to study with Berg, aren't I?...The answer was a firm, 'No, dear.' Pressed, my mother said, 'He's not a good influence.'

Instead, he used his scholarship money for a tour of the Continent with mother, which sounds like it must have been painful for a young homosexual wanting to explore the world, particularly since Edith had become a Christian Scientist who wanted to visit all the local branches. Benjy later went to Italy on his own but soon returned home because his father died. It was time to get a job, and he went for an interview at the BBC. According to the Carpenter bio:
"Britten was depressed at the prospect of working for Adrian Boult, the BBC's musical director, who was one of his two least favorite conductors (the other was Beecham). Indeed, after Vienna he was altogether appalled by the English musical scene. "It was hopeless," he wrote following a broadcast of contemporary music conducted by Vaughan Williams (pictured above). "RVW I know is a very nice man, but he shouldn't conduct...oh, the ragged entries, the half-hearted & doubtful playing--& the beastly tone." The music chosen to represent contemporary composers appalled him as much as the playing: "I struggled for about three or four minutes with R.O. Morris & then switched off. I tried to be politely interested in Robin Milford, but failed utterly. The fifteen biblical songs of RVW finished me entirely; that "pi" and artificial mysticism combined with, what seems to me, technical incompetence, sends me crazy, I have never felt more depressed for English music than after that programme...especially when I felt that this is what the public, no, not the public, the critics love and praise...O for Wien!"

In a stroke of good luck, "the BBC phones at breakfast saying would I get into touch with a certain film impresario, Alberto Cavalcanti (pictured above), which I do, with the result that I lunch with him (and another director Mr. Coldstream) at Blackheath -- where the GPO Film Studio is--and that I am booked to do the music to a film on the new Jubilee Stamp..." This led to a series of documentary film-scoring jobs which, according to Britten, "was extremely good practice for me as a young composer, to take exact instructions."

It was as part of this film unit that he met the poet W.H. Auden (pictured below right, with Britten) who contributed a verse to be sung on the soundtrack of Coal Face by women's chorus. "When he heard Britten's setting...Auden was struck by the young composer's 'extraordinary musical sensitivity in relation to the English language. One had always been told that English was an impossible tongue to set or sing...Here at last was a composer who set the language without undue distortion." Auden introduced Britten to his mostly gay, left-wing, artistic circle of friends, including the novelist Christopher Isherwood.

Two earthshaking events occurred for Britten in 1937: the death of his mother which filled him with the contradictory emotions of grief and relief, and one month later meeting his eventual life partner and musical collaborator, the tenor Peter Pears. Two years later the pair set off for North America for a concert tour that started in Canada and ended in New York where Auden had emigrated two years earlier. World War Two began, and as a gay pacifist couple, their prospects didn't look good. The short trip ended up being three years of exile, ending in San Diego.

Ronald Duncan, a friend of Britten's from Royal College of Music days and the librettist for the opera "The Rape of Lucretia," wrote a score-settling memoir in 1981, five years after the composer's death, called "Working with Britten." In it, he makes the astute observation:
"Auden and Isherwood had settled in the United States a year or two earlier and taken out American naturalisation. They had urged Britten to follow them. When he left for America he too intended to emigrate. I never took this intention seriously. When we had gone to Paris together a couple of years before the war he had been homesick before he reached Calais."
San Diego, California must have seemed like the end of the world for Britten, but it was where he ran across an essay in 1942 by E.M. Forster about the 19th century English poet George Crabbe and his series of Suffolk-set poems, "The Borough." One of the poems featured the character of Peter Grimes, the composer recalled, "and in a flash I realized two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged." They returned to England later that year.


Kit Stolz said...

Great introduction to the man...I look forward to reading more about him, and to your thoughts about his work, what makes it worthy.

With people like Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, my admiration is so great I have been known to get deep into the weeds around the man, without ever explaining why I think he is so great. Don't let this happen to you! I want to hear what you think.

Nancy Ewart said...

Fascinating - I knew a bit about Britten but nothing like what you've written here. A friend of mine was the official photographer for the San Diego Opera and invited me down when they did their production of Peter Grimes which was decades ago. Quite powerful music.

Henry Holland said...

Great article, SFMike, I hope you continue on with the rest of Britten's pretty amazing life.

Britten is my first operatic love. I'd never been to an opera before, never heard one complete, just highlights stuff that my Dad would play. I'd read he was gay and because I knew the play, on a whim I decided to go to the LA Opera production of A Midsummer's Night Dream in February, 1988.

I walked out 3 hours later totally converted; I went to Tower Records (RIP) the next day, bought the only Britten opera then on CD (the Pears/Britten Peter Grimes) and that was that.

I'm certain that he's a great opera composer, easily in the second tier of great opera composers (the first being, say, Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini). He simply had the knack for writing music that worked dramatically, he was brilliant at working with his librettist to shape the text and drama. I've seen all of his operas in the theater, they simply *work*.

Add to that a CV that includes pieces like the Spring Symphony, Les Illuminations > Serenade for T, H & S > Nocturne > Phaedra, the War Requiem, The Prince of the Pagodas, Sinfonia da Requiem and the Cello Symphony and I think his place in our musical life is secure.

Civic Center said...

Dear Henry: Whenever somebody would tell Britten what a beautiful melody he had written, his immediate concern was, "It doesn't sound like Puccini, does it?", meaning "oh no, I hope it's not just another stupid tune." I'd put Britten in the first rank of opera composers with Verdi, Mozart, etc. Most of the world still just doesn't realize it quite yet.

By the way, there's a heckuva lot more interesting Britten biography but I'll be waiting for the right concert/opera performance to attempt it again.

Dear Kit: It is difficult to explain enthusiasms for artists who speak to one in a special way without getting lost in the thickets. It's sort of fun, though, too.