Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Britten Project: Take 1

As I wrote in my program notes for the upcoming VC concert, we are kicking-off an exciting venture with our Britten Project. Over the next five seasons we will explore and perform most of the a capella and small-scale choral works of the greatest composer to set the English language since Purcell. We will revisit old favorites like "Ceremony of Carols" and collaborate with the Virginia Children's Chorus on the early choral masterpiece, "A Boy was Born" and offer many of the short anthems and hymns, among other cycles and cantatas. We are starting with these performances of the "Five Flower Songs," and culminating in a St Cecilia Day-Britten Centennial concert on his birthday November 22, 2013 (OK, that's not on the books YET, but we're looking ahead...). It is fitting that one of the most prodigious and gifted composers of the 20th century was born on the name-day of the patron saint of music, St Cecilia.

As I was sharing with the singers following a rehearsal earlier this week, one of the traits that sets Britten apart from other vocal/choral composers is his facile and refined use of instrumental textures to shape his writing for voices. The most obvious example in the Flower Songs is the closing "Ballad of Green Broom" in which an anonymous poem is set like a folksong with guitar accompaniment. The melody is passed from voice to voice, while the other 3 accompanying voices sing short words that sound like plucked or strum guitar chords (in every varying arrangements, to accommodate the shifting voice of the melody--Tenor/SAB; Bass/SAT; etc). The poem is a ballad about a lazy young man--"without thought, without good" who is finally roused from lethargy to go to work as a woodsman--"cutting broom"-- and on his way passes by a Lady's "fine house" who calls for him to come and marry "a lady in full bloom"--seeing a way out of his labor "Johnny gave his consent/and to church they both went."

As the narrative picks up momentum, so does the tempo, and Britten varies the accompanying figures, building to a pair of dizzying duets where the voices literally chase one another (B/T followed by A/S). This tumbling section leads to a climactic verse where all 4 voices come together for the only time in the piece, an accomplished gesture that is punctuated with a virtuosic tag on the recurring emblematic phrase "green Broom."

Even when Britten is not emulating specifically instrumental techniques in his choral works, his use of texture is imaginative and varied. For example, the opening Flower Song, a bright arrangement of Robert Herrick's "To Daffodils" conjures the image of flowers blowing in the breeze. Paired voices frame the piece (S/B & A/T) in a charming duet. The middle section features the upper three voices in staccato chords (like offstage brass) while the basses pick up the melody from the opening soprano line under which they originally harmonized. The gently churning rhythm, the subtly shifting harmonies and textures mirror the poetic subject: flowers that "haste away so soon."

The second Herrick setting, "The Succession of the Four Sweet Months" echoes the Renaissance madrigal text perfectly. The four months, April-July, are taken up by the four voices in a classic miniature of imitative polyphony, as befitting its madrigalesque subject. Britten finishes this song with a succinct demonstration of his craftsmanship: a five bar codetta featuring each part with its respective month (S=April, A=May, T=June, B=July), the S & B outlining the home-key, while the inner voices flirt with a harmonic modulation unpredictable enough to pique our interest to the final resolution.

The middle two works are the heart of this cycle, and feature two poets dear to Britten. George Crabbe lived on the same street in Aldeburgh Britten and Pears eventually would. Aldeburgh is an unforgettable place. A tiny sea-side town on the east coast of England, just far enough up to feel the chill of the North Sea in all but the warmest months, it is surrounded by marshes and wetlands which lend it a special aura and fill it with memorable aromas. Aldeburgh has amazing fish and chips, which are best enjoyed sitting on the shingle as the imposing tide that inspired so much of Britten's music crashes at your feet. Crabbe wrote a book-length poem called The Borough, and it would inspire Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes, which catapulted the barely 30-year-old composer to fame. Peter Grimes is an outcast--a loner, a dreamer, a melancholy & troubled man who struggles in professional and personal life, to put it blandly. Britten and Pears identified with the loner & dreamer outcast in Grimes. His struggle between good and evil, innocence and corruption would parallel a leitmotif that would weave through Britten's work, culminating in his last opera, Death in Venice.

That is all to say the juxtaposition of Crabbe's "Marsh Flowers" with the mad, outcast, "peasant poet" John Clare's "Evening Primrose" is significant, and requires our attention. Never mind that Britten, a copious letter reader and writer and chronicler of his whereabouts and goings on where his and Pears' life and work were concerned did not even mention the Flower songs until AFTER they were completed (and this is unusual). And even then he did not have much to say about them, other than drawing an inquiring conductor's attention to the connection between "Marsh Flowers" and Peter Grimes! So, I find it telling that the harsh, acerbic world of the miniature masterpiece that is "Marsh Flowers" comes from the same source that inspired the first of Britten's intensely personal dozen-or-so operas. The Borough (=Aldeburgh--ie: a small town filled with, among other things, gossip...familiar, anyone?!?) represents the judgmental, closed, hypocritical "status quo" against which the artist/outsider/outcast struggles. "Marsh Flowers" ostensibly chronicles some of the more unpleasant flora in the salt-marsh and sea-side town, but it is a short leap to the metaphor comparing the "poisoned stings" of the "fiery nettle" to the harsh treatment from small-town opprobrium. Britten sets paired voice against one another (this time S/T and A/B) and the angular descriptors of the flora are exchanged in sinewy lines with short, dissonant stings. Britten sets the pairs in contrary motion so that crossing melodies mean crossing harmonies, peppered with mixed thirds (ie: a & a# simultaneously). The "fiery nettle" is set with a dramatic portamento (slide) up the octave for all four voices, and its "poison'd stings" painted with a texture that performs the poetic image with twisted melodies, harmony and rhythm. A double canon (T imitating S, B following A) mirrors the image of the fern growing "in ev'ry chink." The wind-tossed seaweed inspires another colorful bit of word-painting, as the paired voices sing their dissonant duet in contrary motion so they are literally "rolling up and down."

John Clare was a younger contemporary of Crabbe and one of the greatest of England's unschooled poets. Like another Britten muse, Christopher Smart (poet of "Rejoice in the Lamb" and source of my cat Jeoffry's name), Clare was institutionalized for madness. Or what is known today as bipolar disorder. So, another melancholy and troubled artist, another outcast & loner, and another muse. "Evening Primrose" is the beautiful heart of the cycle, an intimate, shimmering part-song about a delicate flower that blooms once, and only at night (=out of sight). A rustic poet, Clare (like his more famous Scots elder, Robert Burns) was fond of the double-entendre erotic image (this trait runs through every generation of poets, and the best of them, like Robert Frost, hide it beneath other layers of significance). Thus, the sensual: "And dewdrops pearl the evening breast," The sexual awakening: "The evening primrose opes anew," and, among others, the impotent: "it faints and withers and is gone." This is meant in NO way to demean, debase (or deflower?) Clare's poetry but is offered as a legitimate reading of the poetic images. I don't think Britten was conscious of these images in his setting. His setting reflects a tuning to the images of the flower as sensitive, ephemeral soul (like the creative work and the creative artist). The song alternates between exquisitely harmonized homophonic phrases, and brief oscillating lines in canon. The only extroverted moment in this beautiful miniature comes at the lines "Thus it blooms on while night is by;/When day looks out with open eye," and thus resembles that late blaze of glory before sunset, the last surge of life before death, as the poem concludes:
"Bashed at the gaze it cannot shun,/It faints and withers and is gone."


Unknown said...

Statements like "the greatest British composer since Purcell" should really be left to the marketing department. Vaughan Williams has an excellent claim to this title, for example, and there are other British composers of comparable musical stature in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Scott Williamson said...

Alas, I cannot take credit for the statement that should be "left to the marketing department" since musicologists have been anointing Britten as the British compositional heir since the 1950's (Besides, I AM the marketing department for my group).
RVW is certainly the greatest British symphonist, but is not Britten's equal as a vocal composer. I would be curious to know which other "comparable" composers my critic has in mind. I certainly do not intend to minimize any of their accomplishments. One can love Schubert and still recognize Beethoven as the greatest composer of his age.

Unknown said...

While it was possible to nail critical colours to the mast in the 1950s, it was MUCH too early to punt for the title of "greatest British composer since Purcell" - Britten simply hadn't written enough to justify this epitaph.
This is an entertaining game over the port, but you have to consider the broader public in your jury.
By 1950, Ralph Vaughan Williams had become almost a stultifying force in British music, almost a travesty of Elgar's jingoist mode. There was a natural desire to break out, and a commercial and academic desire to break the hold Vaughan Williams' had established over the musical scene. The "Serenade for tenor horn and strings" and "Peter Grimes" marked a new direction.
At the same time, Vaughan Williams had IMO identified a problematic trend in Britten's work, criticising the young student as "too clever" (a blighting British criticism). Walton had produced a series of interesting and popular pieces, and Tippett had created the highly popular postwar "A Child of Our Time".
Having been through two cycles of loving and hating the "War Requiem", I now feel that Vaughan Williams is a greater vocal composer, rooted in folk song and reaching (speaking to) a much broader popular base than Britten ever did ("too clever"). RVW also wrote for a broader performing public than Britten, who milked the superstar postwar circuit (much to his publisher's dismay).
Since I'm playing the game, I vote for Elgar as the greatest British composer in the 19th century (you can't cavil at his vocal output), Vaugh Williams in the 20th century, and Maxwell Davies in the 21st century-to-date.
(Pass the port!)

Unknown said...

BTW, Scott, I wasn't suggesting that you came up with the claim that Britten was "the greatest etc". He was very good at marketing, particularly among musicologists! Also, a dissenting opinion doesn't make me a critic.

Scott Williamson said...

Thanks for elaborating, Paul. I'm glad to have some spirited discussion. I second your motion on Elgar. Not to draw out the debate on Britten, but even by 1950 he was up to opus 47, with song & choral cycles of Auden, Rimbaud, Michelangelo, Donne, Hopkins, the Spring Symphony, Saint Nicolas (itself an example of his challenging music for amateurs and children). I love RVW and appreciate the broad appeal of his music. I've always found the "too clever" comments to smack of homophobia (don't know about RVW, but Walton and Stravinsky certainly were guilty of such prejudice). But here I go again protesting too much! Max, huh? He's one of those composers (like Tippett) I want to like more than I actually do. I'm not sure who would get my post-Britten vote: perhaps James MacMillan. Cheers!

Unknown said...

In fairness, I must point out that RVW is extensively documented as being free of homophobic prejudice - for example, Lawrence Kramer "Walt Whitman and Modern Music", pages 31-33.

Scott Williamson said...

Thanks, Paul: I was not aware of the Whitman article, so thanks for sharing it.