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The outstanding English composer working in the mid-20th century, Benjamin Britten won a significant international reputation, whilst remaining thoroughly English in inspiration. Britten’s compositions appeal to all ages, from the delightful Simple Symphony, composed for a school orchestra, and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra written for an educational film, to the haunting Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the intense anti-war statement of his War Requiem.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
The Best of Britten
Benjamin Britten occupies an unrivalled position in English music of the twentieth century and a place of the greatest importance in the wider musical world. While Elgar was in some ways part of late nineteenth-century German romantic tradition, Britten avoided the trap offered by musical nationalism and the insular debt to folk-music of his older compatriots, while profiting from that tradition in a much wider European context. He may be seen as following in part a path mapped out by Mahler. He possessed a special gift for word-setting and vocal writing, a facility that Purcell had shown and that was the foundation of a remarkable series of operas that brought English opera for the first time into international repertoire. Tonal in his musical language, he knew well how to use inventively, imaginatively, and, above all, musically, techniques that in other hands often seemed arid. His work owed much to the friendship and constant companionship of the singer Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote many of his principal operatic rôles and whose qualities of voice and intelligence clearly had a marked effect on his vocal writing.
Born in the East Anglian seaside town of Lowestoft in 1913, Britten showed early gifts as a composer, studying with Frank Bridge before a less fruitful time at the Royal College of Music in London. His association with the poet W.H. Auden, with whom he undertook various collaborations, was in part behind his departure with Pears in 1939 for the United States, where opportunities seemed plentiful, away from the petty jealousies and inhibitions of his own country, where musical facility and genius often seemed the objects of suspicion. The outbreak of war brought its own difficulties. Britten and Pears were firmly pacifist in their views, but were equally horrified at the excesses of National Socialism and the sufferings that the war brought. Britten’s nostalgia for his native country and region led to their return to England in 1942, when they rejected the easy option of nominal military service as musicians in uniform in favour of overt pacifism, but were able to give concerts and recitals, often in difficult circumstances, offering encouragement to those who heard them. The re-opening of Sadler’s Wells and the staging of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes started a new era in English opera. The English Opera Group was founded and a series of chamber operas followed, with larger scale works that established Britten as a composer of the highest stature, a position recognised shortly before his early death by his elevation to the peerage, the first English composer ever to be so honoured.
Britten began his Hymn to Cecilia, a setting of a poem by W.H. Auden, in America in the early 1940s, and completed it during the crossing back to England in 1942. Each of the three parts of the poem ends with an invocation to St Cecilia. In the first part she is described, as death draws near, singing her prayer, rousing Aphrodite and gathering the angels. The second part is in the voice of music in simple innocence, and the third part turns to the composers, ‘Dear white children casual as birds‘, with a final prayer to St Cecilia to appear to and inspire all musicians.
The opera Peter Grimes had its first performance in London in June 1945. In California in 1941 Britten had come across an article by E.M. Forster on the poet George Crabbe, adding to his own feelings of nostalgia for his own part of England. Crabbe’s poem The Borough, set in Suffolk, provided a source for the opera. The fisherman Peter Grimes, an outsider, suspected by his fellow-townspeople of cruelty to his apprentices, is hounded to his death. The drama, and the death of Grimes’s last apprentice, the result of the actions of the people of The Borough, is set against the sea in its varying moods, elements familiar to Britten from his childhood by the sea in Lowestoft. The Four Sea Interludes divide the scenes of the opera. The second of the four, Sunday Morning, introduces Act II, with its church bells and bright sunshine, as townspeople gather before church, their self-righteous hypocrisy in contrast to the genuine emotions that will be played out between Grimes and the schoolmistress Ellen Orford, who tries to protect him. The fourth interlude, Storm, is taken from earlier in the opera, between the first and second scenes. Balstrode, a fisherman, gives Grimes friendly advice, urging him to marry Ellen, this against the sounds of a rising storm.
Rejoice in the Lamb was commissioned in 1943 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of St Matthew’s, Northampton. The text Britten chose was by the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart, an eccentric poem written as Smart languished in an asylum. It opens with a tenor solo, Rejoice in God, O ye tongues, calling on Nimrod, Ishmael, Balaam, Daniel, Ithamar and David to join in praise of the Lord.
The Sinfonia da Requiem was written in response to a commission in the autumn of 1939 from the Japanese government for a work to mark the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the imperial dynasty. The symphony was rejected, however, by the commissioning committee, who took exception to the nature of the work and its apparent Christian content, although it had initially received approval. Britten had, in any case, resolved to write a composition imbued with as much of the spirit of pacifism as was possible. The Sinfonia da Requiem, dedicated to the memory of Britten’s parents, had its first performance in March 1941 at Carnegie Hall in New York, with the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli. In his programme notes for the first performance, Britten described the opening movement, Lacrymosa, as a slow marching lament with three principal motifs, the first heard from the cellos answered by a solo bassoon, the second based on the interval of a major seventh and the third alternating chords on flute and trombones.
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was commissioned in 1946 by the Crown Film Unit for an educational film, Instruments of the Orchestra. The original commentary was provided by Eric Crozier, who wrote libretti for Albert Herring, Saint Nicolas, Let’s Make an Opera!, and, with E.M. Forster, Billy Budd. The work is, formally, a set of variations on a D minor theme of Purcell, taken from his incidental music to the play Abdelazar. This is first heard from the full orchestra, followed by the different sections of the orchestra, woodwind, brass, strings, and finally percussion, to be summed up by the whole orchestra. Variations follow for the members of each section, ending with a splendid fugue in which each instrument or group of instruments enters in order.
Britten wrote his Serenade for tenor, Horn and Strings in 1943, in response to a request from Dennis Brain, and was first heard at the Wigmore Hall in October 1943 with Brain and Peter Pears as soloists. The third of the poems set, William Blake’s Elegy, was described by the composer as the true heart of the work in its reflection on the sinfulness at the heart of man.
Gloriana was written for the coronation of 1953, with a libretto by William Plomer, and a plot taken largely from Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex. It deals with conflict between personal feelings and duty, as Queen Elizabeth has no choice but to condemn her impetuous young favourite, the Earl of Essex, to death. Britten arranged the Symphonic Suite from the opera in the later months of 1954, with the help of Imogen Holst. It ends with Gloriana Moritura, based on the end of the opera, where the Queen faces her own death. In his Simple Symphony of 1933 Britten made use of compositions from his childhood to provide a work for string orchestra or string quartet of apparent simplicity, designed to have an immediate appeal and a practical use. The Playful Pizzicato, which is just that, is the second movement.
The Suite on English Folk Tunes was written in 1974 and dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger, to be first heard at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year. The first of the five movements, Cakes and Ale, is a scherzo, marked fast and rough and making apt use of percussion. It treats two tunes, We’ll Wed and Stepney Cakes and Ale. The suite was Britten’s last orchestral work, and there is a certain poignancy in the epigraph from Thomas Hardy, ‘A time there was, before the birth of consciousness, when all went well‘, words set by Britten in the last song of his Hardy cycle Winter Words.
Britten’s tribute to his teacher, his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, was written in 1937 and performed at the Salzburg Festival in the same year. The theme itself is taken from Bridge’s Idyll, Op. 6, No. 2, for string quartet. The work, an example of Britten’s early virtuosity, ends with a fugue, which, as has been pointed out, contains a number of references to other works by Bridge, whose theme returns in modified form in the Finale.
The Four Cabaret Songs, written between 1937 and 1939, were published posthumously in 1960. With words by W.H.Auden they were composed for Hedli Anderson, later the wife of Louis MacNeice, who had taken part in the Auden-Isherwood The Ascent of F6, for which Britten had provided incidental music. The first of the four songs, Tell me the truth about love demonstrates the composer’s witty mastery of popular idiom.
Britten’s War Requiem was written for the festival marking the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt after the destruction of the war. The three solo parts were conceived for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, wife of Mstislav Rostropovich, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears, although Galina Vishnevskaya was prevented from taking part in the first performance. While the full orchestra and chorus, with the soprano soloist, sing the Latin words of the traditional Requiem, the male soloists and a chamber orchestra, in juxtaposition, sing settings of the war poems of Wilfred Owen. In the opening Requiem aeternam the chorus and a boys’ choir sing the words of the Latin liturgy, and the tenor soloist reflects on the horror and pity of war in Owen’s poem What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? The movement, in which the sound of the passing-bell, drums and bugles have been heard, ends with a hushed Kyrie eleison from the chorus.
Britten wrote his A Hymn to the Virgin at the age of sixteen, while ill in bed, during his last term at school. The medieval text mingles English and Latin and is set for eight voices, with a semichorus or vocal quartet singing the Latin words. The work was sung at Britten’s funeral in 1976, giving the text a particular poignancy: ‘Lady, pray thy Son for me / Tam pia, / That I may come to thee Maria!’.
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BRITTEN (THE BEST OF)