Tuesday, December 1, 2009

VC: Britten Project, II--Christ's Nativity

The Chorale's Holiday concerts are already here, our dress rehearsal is tonight, and I have Britten much on my mind. The centerpiece of the program is his early suite of original Christmas carols, Christ's Nativity. See my previous entry for notes on the entire program. For now, I'm going to talk a bit about Britten and the marvelous set of carols left unpublished until 1994, nearly 20 years after Britten's death.

I was speaking with David Nicholson, an informed reporter from the Daily Press (Newport News) about our upcoming concert, and he asked me "Why Britten?" In addition to the fact Britten is beloved of singers--especially professional ones (I'll elaborate)--his music is increasingly popular with audiences (the MET recently produced and offered an HD broadcast of an acclaimed new production of Britten's seminal opera, Peter Grimes. Houston Grand Opera is in the middle of their own multi-season exploration of Britten's works. His songs are staples in the art song repertoire, especially for the tenor voice, as his lifelong partner & companion, Peter Pears, was also the leading English tenor of the day).

Like Bernstein & Barber, Britten is a composer more relevant than ever, and his "time" is probably still to come. All three of these great 20th century composers were rejected by the academy & the avant-garde for not being experimental or cutting-edge enough, or what-have-you-enough. All three remained grounded in traditional forms, tonality, and yet each carved a distinctive niche and retained a unique, and increasingly prescient, voice.

Bernstein's eclecticism, evident in his polymath personality AND his works that range from dance-inspired musicals to brooding Jewish symphonies, is now one of the singular virtues of masterpieces like the Mass. Barber's 19th-century-European-laden Romanticism was received as reactionary and irrelevant in the 20th century. The fact his music engages the emotions directly without manipulative affects is more appreciated now than ever. His Adagio for Strings has become the de facto national elegy of the US.

And Britten, popular & acclaimed for most of his career in post-war Britain, suffered some of the same criticisms as his US colleagues. Often dismissed as simply "too clever" Britten remained true to his own "blend" of traditional and modernist techniques in a style that is always attentive to form & architecture, and always dramatically engaging. This is evident from his earliest essays to his autumnal masterworks like his final opera, Death in Venice, the solo cantata, Pheadra, and his third (and final) String Quartet.

I think Britten remains in a curious "in-between" state here in the US for a few reasons. I believe the primary one is the simple fact his music is challenging enough to be difficult for many amateur groups. The cathedral choirs and singing societies in Britain (for whom many of his works were written) are simply cut from a different cloth than similar choirs in our system. After all, how many full-time Boy & Girl choir schools in the US can you name? In Britten's day they were thriving and many of the great British choral & vocal musicians--conductors, composers, performers alike--are products of that rich tradition. The result on this side of the pond is that many of the works he wrote for amateur choirs in England are now the purview of professional chamber choirs like the Chorale.

Britten was a gifted composer for the voice, and melded a keen poetic instinct to an innate grasp of musical structure. Though most of his works are vocal, from his earliest efforts onward, he was indebted and beholden to instrumental forms. Thus, the technical challenge of singing Britten is different from that of some of his colleagues (who may have hewn closer to the traditional cathedral tradition). In doing his homework and dutifully studying the old masters, he joined a line of composers from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms & beyond who wed instrumental textures to vocal writing. He learned from Debussy & Stravinsky the effect of orchestration on musical color and the composer's unique ability to create musical impressions. This instrumental and orchestral approach to composing vocal and choral music enlarges the palette of such music. It also increases the technical demands on the singers. Its not that the vocal music of Bach or Beethoven is un-singable, its just bloody difficult, and requires technique, facility, and disciplined practice. As James Levine often says when rehearsing technically challenging passages in a work, "if it was easy ANYBODY could do it!"

So, Britten's choral music is an enjoyable challenge for the professional singer, and his exceptional craft make his music popular and appreciated by audiences. I believe his music strikes the difficult balance of being both substantive in content (ie: meaningful) and immediate in its appeal. Because he wrote so much vocal music, and so much of it falls into the cracks between amateur and pro, many of these works remain underperformed, especially here. Over the next several seasons, culminating in a 2013 Centennial "St Cecilia's Day" concert of music inspired by her patron saint, we hope to whet the appetites of our audiences with the music of this most gifted & prodigious of 20th century vocal composers, whose 100th birthday IS on St Cecilia's Day itself (Nov 22).

Britten was drawn to and inspired by the Christmas story throughout his life. Though never an orthodox Christian (as a pacifist, conscientious objector & openly gay man, he felt himself doubly an outsider) he was certainly a follower of the story of Christ. Images & metaphors of innocence, purity, goodness, and the restoration of these virtues (via the incarnation and the resurrection) stoked his imagination. If parables were one of Christ's primary means of teaching his disciples through the use of metaphor, story, and image, then we might call much of Britten's music "parable" music.

His friend, colleague & frequent collaborator, W.H. Auden, had this to say about such art:

"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..."

There is no question into which category Britten's music falls. It is apparent from his teenage Christmas suite, Christ's Nativity, written when he was just 17 & still in the middle of his studies of the Royal College of Music, but about to emerge as one of Britain's most gifted young composers. The elements of his distinct style are already apparent in this apprentice suite with the working title, The King's Birthday.

Britten had a knack for collating various texts from different sources and combining them into a cogent "libretto." The most striking & famous example of this is surely the War Requiem. In that monumental tribute to the victims of WWII, the Latin text for the burial of the dead is coupled with searing poems from the English soldier & martyr, Wilfred Owen.

The texts for Christ's Nativity come from two anthologies of old English carols and poems. What elevates Britten's gifts as a vocal composer are the means he uses to set them. From his study of 17th-18th century music he grasped a keen sense of contrapuntal form. The third and fourth movements of the suite display this knack for fugal writing that is indebted to Renaissance composers like Palestrina and the Baroque counterpoint of Bach.

Form and architecture defined by counterpoint is one way of organizing music. Such organization provides a structure which renders the music comprehensible. Another unifying device Britten uses are short, intervallic motives. The opening of the suite features colorful antiphonal chords on the word, "Awake!" Britten characterizes these utterances with the piquant interval of the 2nd: 2 voices singing adjacent tones simultaneously (the 1st & 2nd sopranos, followed by the 1st & 2nd tenors). This device recurs throughout the opening movement, giving it structural unity. It is also embedded within the texture, and as such generates much of the material that follows. This is another feature that separates the great composer from the merely above-average. Like Beethoven & Brahms & Stravinsky, Britten (who admired all 3), is able to generate a lot of musical material from a simple interval or motive. Studying his scores is a great way to observe a fertile young imagination at work.

Intervals of the 3rd & 5th make frequent appearances throughout the rest of the cycle. The second carol, "Sweet was the Song" (the most often excerpted from the suite, and the title of our Holiday program) is a beautiful lullaby. A solo contralto (alto) sings a simple melody accompanied by the women's voices who sing in gently lilting 3rd's. Britten's craft is evident in the subtle harmonic handling of the repetition. Where a lesser composer might have simply "stuck" to the neat formula of the opening phrases, Britten makes some small but significant changes to individual lines to "color" the harmony, and add just enough variety to lead the ear all the way to the final cadence.

The third movement starts with the open interval of the perfect fifth, one of THE defining intervals in western harmony. Its sturdiness is then challenged by an increasingly complex 8-part vocal texture (requiring instrumental-like independence) derived from the text. "Preparations" is a harried & dense canvas about literally getting one's house in order for an imminent royal visit! "Let no man idle stand!" is a recurring motive Britten sets as a cantus firmus. That term does mean what it sounds like, and refers to the "fixed" line of chant around which other voices would improvise in the earliest examples of polyphonic music nearly a millennium ago.

The preparations reach a fevered pitch, and it as if Britten as chief Butler for the estate calls everyone to attention mid-way through the movement: "Let each man give attendance in his place." Coming 49 measures into the movement, it is the first instance all 8 voices sing together. This is followed by a repetition of the opening motive, "Thus if a King were coming, would we do" which yields to the movement's--and the entire suite's--center. Britten cuts the rhythmic pace in half, replaces the 8-part contrapuntal texture with a double-chorus chorale-based hymn in music that is remarkably assured for one so young.

"Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain Him always like a stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge Him in a manger."

The final image inspired in Britten music of astonishing breadth, harmonic & formal control, resulting in a moment of meaningful beauty. He closes the movement with a quiet, unison repetition of the phrase "as at first" which couples the principal intervals, the 5th, followed by a minor third.

It is that same third with which the solo soprano opens the 4th movement. It begins and remains in the quiet, contemplative calm only fleetingly reached in the preceding movement. Along with "Sweet was the Song" this carol, "New Prince, New Pomp" was the only one Britten approved for performance during his lifetime. The work's neglect is still surprising, considering how seminal the entire suite is (Britten's apprenticeship would soon end with the great Christmas works for voices, A Boy was Born, followed by the perennial favorite, A Ceremony of Carols). I am also surprised by the scant attention given it in Britten scholarship. Of the dozen books on Britten I have in my own library, many do not mention this work at all, and the definitive book on Britten's music by Peter Evans, gives just 2/3 of a page to it, and that in the postcript of the tome's near 600 pages!

If the 3rd movement shows Britten playing with Baroque counterpoint within a 20th century amalgam of Debussyian impressionism & Stravinskyian rhythmic propulsion, the 4th movement is his updating of Renaissance polyphony vis-a-vis Palestrina. A cantus firmus also appears throughout this movement. "He spar'd not his own son" grounds a chorale-like movement tinged with pathos and delicately crafted counterpoint. The longest movement of the suite is beautifully arced, punctuated by the soprano singing Southwell's lines above the Biblical texts shared by the choir.

The closing "Carol of King Cnut" is a spirited song closest to the traditional mode Britten was in the process of reinventing. This festive carol shows its composer's ability to write a great tune and set it in a colorfully individual context. Alternating refrains of "O Joy the day!" and "Sing Gloria!" (set to octave leaps in the soprano and tenor), form a decorative bow to tie off this original and engaging suite of carols from one of music's great prodigies. We hope you will share our enthusiasm and excitement for not only this installment of our Britten Project, but each of those to come.

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