Arts/Literature

The Rest is Noise (7)—Britten’s Britain

So after a summer hiatus, The Rest is Noise is back, and this past weekend’s program, on Benjamin Britten and his role in the British imagination, was a welcome return. Britten was, and remains, Britain’s greatest composer of the 20th century—one of the greatest composers of the century from any country, in fact. And this year is his centennial, with lots of performances of his major works going on this autumn. And yet it almost didn’t happen. Britten actually left Britain in 1939 to go live in the United States. He was tired of what he perceived as the parochialism of the British musical establishment, and thought he would have a better life in America. Auden had moved there, after all.

But he returned in 1942, nearly having his boat shot out from under him by a German submarine. What prompted this? Some disappointment in the US, perhaps. But Britten was more British than he realized, and he returned to the Suffolk Coast on which he had grown up, and never really left it after that. Much of the weekend’s focus was on Britten and the landscapes that were important to him, including the shingled beach at Aldeburgh, where he lived for most of his life with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten had several reasons to feel at odds with his country. He was homosexual, which was against the law, and a pacifist during the war. But somehow England called him back. While in California, visiting Auden, he came across an essay by EM Forster on George Crabbe, the poet of the Suffolk coast, and then apparently found a copy of Crabbe’s The Borough at a used book store. The end result here was his operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes. Elsewhere (in Nova Scotia, actually) he came across a volume of English short poems, which included a number of poems in Middle English—and composed A Ceremony of Carols on shipboard while returning to Britain, first performed in London during the blitz, in 1942, by (fittingly) a boys choir. His War Requiem, written for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral after the old one had been destroyed by German bombing (the German night-time bombing of Coventry lasted ten hours), combined the Latin Mass with the poetry of Wilfred Owen—and contained more than a hint of the spirit of reconciliation that Coventry at that point had dedicated itself to. Over the years, he wrote music for a number of BBC documentary films as well, including the legendary Night Mail (with narration by Auden). Britten was English, or British, through and through. He was also a genius. And in spite of being a gay Pacifist, he became a national icon.

How this occurred was the subtext for many of the sessions over the weekend. Post-war Britain was a mess. London and much of the country was in dire economic straits, rationing was everywhere, the empire was collapsing, it owed the United States tons of money (and the US was insisting on collecting), and the reforms of the post-war Labour government, particularly the new National Health Service, had only begun to kick in. Britten was gaining cultural significance, largely as the result of his wartime compositions, and particularly the success of Peter Grimes, and his Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra. In 1948, he took music seriously to Aldeburgh, where he had moved previously, with the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival, which continues to this day. Success upon success. And yet possibly the most transformative event of Britten’s life after returning to Britain in 1942 occurred in 1945, when Britten, on piano, and Yehudi Menuhin, on violin, toured German concentration camps, including Belsen. Britten rarely spoke of the experience until towards the end of his life. He kept composing furiously, though—Britten’s output, especially in opera, was considerable.

Britten took reconciliation seriously. For the scheduled performance of the War Requiem, he scheduled three soloists—One British, one German, and one Russian. The USSR prevented the Russian Soprano from attending, so a British substitute had to be called in at the last minute. Since then, the War Requiem has just grown in stature. The Owen texts were chosen by Britten, probably with the help of Pears. And one of the reasons why the piece continues to remain popular, in fact increase in popularity, is that Britten, while throwing more than one nod towards the recent developments in composition that were running riot throughout Europe at the time, was still enough of a traditionalist that he was able to merge a number of styles without a complete break with the musical past. Stephen Johnson, BBC music maven, in his session on the Requiem, made an interesting point—it was the countries where national governments were complicit with the horrors of the war—Germany, France, Italy—where composers sought a complete break with the musical past. This was not the case in Britain, or in Russia, where composers such as Britten, Prokoviev and Shostokovich were able to meld traditionalism with modernism.

(Singers like me love to sing Britten. There is a high level of technical sophistication—yet he makes it easy for singers. Not that these are easy pieces to sing—they’re not. But he’s helpful, always leaving little hints around of what comes next, and where to pick up your next entrance, stuff like that. Many of his pieces are a joy to sing. Among them is the delightful Hymn to St. Cecelia, the patron saint of music, which Britten composed when he was 17.)

What Britten’s removal to Aldeburgh signified, perhaps, was a desire to reclaim the pastoral sense that he so fondly remembered from his (very happy) childhood. Pastoral is a recurring English theme, after all, and this was explored by several of the sessions. The first, with novelists Blake Morrison and Jennifer Potter, discussed the landscapes that Britten knew in loved, specifically around Aldeburgh, with their shingle beaches, their sense of vulnerability (beaches in Suffok are constantly eroding, often dangerously—whole towns have disappeared over the centuries), the vaguely apocolyptic aura conveyed by disused and rusting military equipment, the pylons everywhere, and, of course, the Sizwell nuclear plant, which dominates the landscape. “Erosion,” in fact, has become something for a metaphor for the modern condition—we’re worried about the world falling apart, and on the Suffolk Coast, it actually is. Britten’s work with Henry Moore (whose sculpture welcomes one at Aldeburgh) is also rooted in the landscape, although from different parts of the country—Moore from the Yorkshire moors, Britten the Suffolk beaches.

The second was the discussion between Alexandra Harris (author of Romantic Moderns, a transformative book for me), artist George Shaw, and cultural historian Patrick Wright, whom we have heard from before. Shaw discussed the show he curated on Graham Sutherland at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and how Sutherland’s view of “Pastoral” was decidedly weird, undoubtedly influenced by Sutherland’s Catholicism, since his trees are all thorns, if they’re recognizable as trees in the first place. But the exchanges here were lively, with some interesting comments on Britten’s relationship with the artist John Piper (who, bless his heart, used to drive around England in the 1930s taking his friends to visit old churches.) This tied in nicely with another NoiseBites discussion on Britten and Myfawnwy Piper, wife of John, artist, editor and librettist to Britten’s last several operas—a hugely interesting figure in her own right.

It’s interesting, in fact, how the “English landscape” has moved around. Over the past two centuries it has had wildly different symbols. The Lake District, after Wordsworth. Wessex, after Hardy. These days, it’s East Anglia, after WG Sebald. And yet so few of these iconic manifestations of “Englishness” celebrate the sea. Britten did, however. But the more general point, I think, is that Britten in music was able to engender a response about England, Britain, that only few composers and artists were able to accomplish. John Piper, with whom Britten developed a firm friendship almost independently of Britten’s working relationship with his wife, was one of these. As Harris discusses in Romantic Moderns, Piper moved from European abstraction in the early 1930s to a much more aggressively domestic and realistic approach, concentrating on Oxford landscapes at first, and then moving to Wales and other parts of England. And what emerged was a view of English pastoral that was to dominate English cultural thinking for decades. Many of the writers and artists of this period were rural, or had active rural lives—Virginia and Leonard Woolf, EM Forster, Stanley Spencer, Eric Ravelious, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. In fact, Mrs. W and I have speculated that during the 1930s there was a concerted effort to define Englishness in a pastoral frame, under the auspices of Kenneth Clark and what in the 1940s became the Recording Britain project. That’s another post. George Shaw had an interesting comment here—it was not just to stoke patriotic fervor, it was also a how-to manual in the event that the result of the war was a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

John Piper’s Memorial Window for Benjamin Britten

Britten was a star, then, in part because of what he did, but also how famous he became internationally. As Alex Ross disucessed in his exemplary talk (his third of the series, with one more to come), England was still considered a musical backwater by continental Europe. There were German composers, as Shirley Williams pointed out, who had never heard of Purcell. And Britten championed Purcell, and other English composers. But Britten, who if not radical in his music was radical in his politics, remains a puzzling choice for a national icon. Still, he became one—he was the first composer to receive a life peerage—in part because he remained pretty much the same composer throughout his life. And he presaged some of the post-war harkening back to the Renaissance that composers such as Stockhausen and Ligeti pursued, much as Stravinsky had before the war.

Ross’s more general discussion concerned the years 1945-1975, and in customary Ross fashion, it sparkled. This was the period of the great fracturing, and Ross does probably about a good a job as can be done with the range of directions post-war composers were choosing. Most obviously, there was Darmstadt in German, where German composers, choosing to negate all that had gone before (and how could one blame them, really, considering where Germany ended up?) adopted what we now know as tonal serialism. This arose in the US as well, pretty independently, simply because it was one of the directions that one could choose to take at the time, as US composer Milton Babbit did. Not that it makes any of this listenable. But listenable is almost irrelevant at this point, where the complexity of the score visually becomes almost as interesting as what sounds are being produced. Hence the coupling of electronic music with the dissolution of tonality, which seemed as good a response as any, really, to the war and the world that resulted from it. And in the 1950s and 1960s the pace of change picked up, and it became almost too much work to keep track. Ross does, enthusiastically, but you can see he’s not even trying to keep it coherent any more—he can’t, because there’s no longer a coherent narrative, as there had been before the war. This comes out in the book as well.

All of which made the discussion of The Festival of Britain, which occurred in 1951, all the more interesting. This was a Festival that lasted three months on London’s South Bank, with ancillary stuff going on around the country. Eight million visitors, many of them English on their first trip to the capital, toured the festival in its three month existence. It was a smashing success, by just about every measure. Barry Turner, who has written several books on the festival, made an interesting point—it took place exactly 100 years after the Great Exhibition—but, unlike the Exhibition, it was hopeful, rather than triumphant. It was actually a celebration of British design, as well as technology. There were a number of audience members who attended as a child—it was 62 years ago, after all—but all that great memories of it being a hopeful, even exuberant experience. As we said earlier, in 1951 Britain was a pretty rough shape. But there was always the future, and the festival encapsulated that, which is why it’s so fondly remembered today. Britain was still part of the world after all. And Britten was emblematic of that. As it turned out, he was as English as they come.

And Friday night was a good mix of music—two instrumental pieces by Britten (one a section of an incomplete clarinet concerto, which he didn’t finish after the score was impounded by the FBI, although returned later), Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (which Britten used as a model for his own attempt), and the 14th Symphony by Shostokovich, which was dedicated to Britten. The City of London Sinfonietta was in fine form.

Next up—the Post-War World.

4 replies »

  1. Thank you. I’ve been a fan of his music for decades. To have this history makes it all the more remarkable. I appreciate the time you invested in this post.

  2. Thanks very much, Denny–it’s great fun to do them. I have to be more diligent on timing, as I was this time. I still haven’t written up the ten concerts we heard when we were in Alsace last month!

    You would have enjoyed this evening’s concert–all Britten, all the time. First the very lively Prelude and Dances from The Prince and the Pagoda, then the Suite on English Folk Tunes, then Nocturne (with tenor Mark Padmore), then The Cello concerto. Terrific stuff, all of it. Plus, it’s not often you get to hear a concert where every piece is darker than the previous one. Britten really was astonishing–the stuff he was composing the last few years of his life were just as interesting, if not more so, than his earlier stuff. War Requiem coming up!

    • Great post, I think you should get the South Bank to link to all your posts! The classical concert world need informed and in-depth commentary like this, from real enthusiasts, unconstraned by copy deadlines or restrictions. I’d rather read this than the 250 words that some hack churns out for money to appear in the next day’s or weekend’s newspaper.

  3. Thanks, John, although I don’t know about the “informed” part. Sometimes I just make stuff up. Still, there will be another one after this weekend, including tonight’s concert. I missed my calling!