Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"to adventure, art, and peace:" Britten & parables

[Below is an essay I originally wrote for the members of the Connecticut Chorale Society in December, 2006, for a performance of Britten's "Good Samaritan" parable for the Red Cross, Cantata Misericordium. The connection to the Chorale's Britten Project, and the strong impression his suite, Christ's Nativity, made on the audiences of this past weekend's Holiday concerts are why I share it here.]

The subject heading is the last phrase from an Auden poem Britten set as a carol in 1944 for an unrealized Christmas oratorio. The last stanza reads:

"Inflict thy promises with each occasion of distress
That from our incoherence we may learn to put our trust in thee
And brutal fact persuade us to adventure art and peace."

Another quote by Auden is apt for Cantata Misericordium and as I will attempt to elucidate, much of Britten's output:

"There must always be two kinds of art, escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love..." (W. H. Auden, 1935)

The Cantata was an intensely personal piece for Britten, written at a pivotal point in his career. Britten scholars are fond of calling it the 'epilogue' to his monumental War Requiem. That work is one of THE great works from the 20th century, and was scored for huge forces—large orchestra and chorus, chamber orchestra, boys' choir, and 3 soloists, and occasioned by the reopening of Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed in WWII.

Britten used said occasion to make one of his most overt philosophical statements. By juxtaposing the Latin text of the mass for the dead with the poems of WWI poet (and fellow pacifist) Wilfred Owen, Britten illuminates the familiar Latin liturgy with a poignancy that is specific as it is universal. To take but one example from that work, the Lacrymosa, with chorus and soprano solo, begins in the lamentoso style associated with the masterpiece Requiems of Mozart and Verdi. Britten literally cuts off the Latin lament with interjections of Owen's poem 'Futility,' which is an elegy from one soldier to a fallen comrade. Thus the ceremonial mass is interrupted by the immediacy of personal testimony, and the community is confronted with individual suffering.

I expound here only to illustrate Britten's keen poetic and dramatic sense, and the integration of every element (text, musical forces, musical material, texture, space/acoustic, etc) at his disposal to achieve those ends. He deliberately chose soloists for the War Requiem from different corners of Europe, to symbolize the devastation on all sides of the conflict. The soprano was to be Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of Mstislav Rostropovich), the baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a prisoner of war) and the tenor (Britten's partner & muse), Peter Pears. It is not mere coincidence that Fischer-Dieskau and Pears were the soloists for Cantata Misericordium. It is equally telling the roles they were assigned, since the German baritone played the Jewish victim, and the composer's lover, the outsider/outcast Samaritan.

To return to Auden's mention of 'parable-art' vis-a-vis Britten, one can trace a line from the earliest works of his youth to the end of his life marked by music engaged in expressing human consciousness—of suffering, lost innocence, and compassion.

Britten and Pears were Conscientious Objectors--not a critically acclaimed subgroup in Europe in the 1940's--and faced difficult tribunals as a result. Britten opened his 1942 statement to the Local Tribunal for the Registration of Conscientious Objectors with courageous and unpopular sentiment:

"Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to avoid helping to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual's actions or thoughts. The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation...and I cannot take part in acts of destruction."

Lest we mistake Britten's position as the facile posturing of a disgruntled protestor, this creed permeated his life and work, without limiting his 'message' to dogma, or didactic 'preaching.' Britten and Pears were well acquainted with the suffering the 'outsider' experiences (both as pacifists and openly gay men who lived together for nearly 40 years) and the works Britten wrote—the majority of which featured leading roles for Pears—reflect a deep empathy with human suffering. To read the letters they exchanged, from the beginning of their friendship in 1937 to Britten’s death in 1976, offers one an intimate perspective on these aspects of their relationship, and indeed, on one of the most remarkable partnerships in the history of Western art.

I believe the oversimplified, binary political discourse permeating our own society colors the appreciation of someone like Britten's position, regardless of what 'side' one chooses. Following the Allied liberation, Britten and the violinist Yehudi Menuhin toured the concentration camps and played concerts for survivors. The music he wrote following that experience has a heightened dramatic sense he would continue to hone and concentrate, leading to the austere, even severe style of his later works. Cantata Misericordium is one of the first fruits of this long-germinating process. But I get ahead of myself; I want to elaborate about parables…

Britten's operas can be viewed as secular parables. Peter Grimes (his first opera, and the work which solidified his reputation after returning to Britain from self-imposed exile in the US) is cast as a visionary outsider, misunderstood and maligned by the community. The Rape of Lucretia is given a moral specificity when the narrators of the story equate Lucretia's suffering with Christ's. That allegory is already present in the Christ-like figure of Billy Budd. Britten deepens the associative force of that work by giving even minor characters scenes of poignant empathy (there is one particular moving scene between the flogged novice, and his compassionate, Good Samaritan-like friend). Given equal focus in these works is the loss of innocence—again, no coincidence Britten wrote so much great music for children and young people. Billy Budd is followed by Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, a compact, moving scena depicting the imminent sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. As in the Cantata the two soloists intone the 'moral' of the story in music that recalls ancient chant & organum. In a sense, Abraham and Isaac is to Billy Budd what the Cantata is to the War Requiem: epilogues that reconsider and refocus in compact form what has been presented and developed over a much broader canvas. The Canticle, War Requiem, and Cantata share a characteristic 'lullaby' feature prominent in Britten. The tenor solo in the Cantata, 'Dormi, Amice' echoes the close of the War Requiem ("Let us sleep now" sung by the tenor and baritone) and the Isaac's farewell to his Father ("Father, do with me as you will").

The Cantata is pivotal in Britten's output for several reasons. As a personal, concentrated response to the renewed fame brought by the success of the War Requiem (and the wave of celebrations for his 50th birthday, in 1963) it signals a turn to a leaner, sparser, more concentrated style that would color the works of the remaining dozen years of his life. Britten had also taken several important trips to far-Eastern locations: to Bali, to Japan, and to Russia. The Gamelan music heard in Bali, the Noh theatre in Japan, and the friendship with the Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich all colored Britten's music. As a parable, the Cantata is an important precursor to Britten's 3 Church Parables, which are among the masterpieces of his late years: Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), and The Prodigal Son (1968).

These are in essence, sacred operas, dramatizing parables with a blending of eastern-influenced musical styles (gamelan-inspired percussion writing, 'exotic' whole-tone scales, Balinese-like heterophony, etc).

I want to mention just a few of the interesting compositional elements at work in the Cantata, in the hopes of connecting them to our performance. The dissonance prevalent throughout the work is--as in so much of this composer's music--symbolic of the tension and ambiguity inherent in being human. That 'Beati' (Blessed) is repeated to cross-related pitches (e# v. e natural in m.6, for example) is reference to the above and harkens back to Bach, and the musical representation of the Christian cross. (Bach used his initials musically B=B flat; A=A, C=C, and H=B natural--in German...thus the name of this most devout of composers is itself symbol of his faith...).

The tonal tension of the entire Cantata pivots between the (Christian) interval of the 3rd (=trinity): D v. F#. This association is solidified by the third repetition of the 'Beati' motive at rehearsal #3, where the 'X' (=cross) chord appears in the orchestra: an F-sharp chord overtop D in the bass. One only need look through the score with this relationship in mind to see how it is manifest and developed (the moral of the story--the T/B epigram at the beginning and end, pivots on F# and ends on D; the “happy ending” to the Good Samaritan scene features the work's only extended section in the bright & mellifluous key of F #--reh. 30, and so on...). Other musical parallels which give the work formal unity include the musical depiction of mercy--the lilting melody first heard in the soprano ("misericordes")--being assigned to the Samaritan (ie: "we know this is the good guy because he's singing the pretty music..."). And there’s the return of the 'X' chord and 'cross-related' voicing when the 'Beati' motive is assigned at the end to 'Vade' ("Go, and do likewise"). Britten is implying that the Beatitude is applicable when one actually acts on it. This implication is supported by a telling detail in the musical narration of the story: neither the priest nor the Levite are heard from--they pass in silence; only the orchestra “speaks” when they enter and exit the scene--and as one commentator points out: "Doing nothing is, very palpably, the sin against which this work speaks."

I will close with a quote from Britten himself, who I believe would be disappointed, if not heart-broken, to find his music "too difficult" or not accessible, for one of his expressed aims was to write music for people, to be performed by all types of people and enjoyed by all types of people and to serve a variety of functions (from escape to parable). In articulating this wish, he was also very clear about the responsibility each participant in the process of music-making has: composer, performer, and listener being equal parts of a 'holy triangle.'

In talking about the ideal circumstances for musical experience, he cites the importance of honoring the composer's intentions as a way of better appreciating the meaning of any work (ie: hearing the St Matthew Passion on Good Friday in a church, as opposed to in a concert or on a recording):

"One must face the fact today that the vast majority of musical performances take place as far from the original as it is possible to imagine: I do not mean simply Falstaff being given in Tokyo or the Mozart Requiem in Madras...Anyone, anywhere, at any time, can listen to the B Minor Mass upon one condition only--that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort--faith, virtue, education, experience, age...If I say the loudspeaker is the enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of a true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place...some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener." (from "On receiving the First Aspen Award," 1964).

The Cantata Misericordium is a demanding piece by a demanding composer who wanted, above all, to communicate expressively about this mystery of being human.

We have the privilege AND the responsibility to do whatever we can to re-create this moving, challenging, and necessary piece of art to our world. I consider myself blessed to be singing it with you all, and look forward to this weekend, which promises to be inspiring, challenging, moving, and full of meaning.

(NYC; XII.06)

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