Monday, November 25, 2013

Britten Notebooks III: Parables & Quartets

See below for more notes, quotes & miscellany on Benjamin Britten during this, his 100th birthday weekend.

Sunday | 24 November 2013 | Britten 100

Friends, remember! | Gold is tried in the fire | And the mettle of man | In the furnace of humiliation…
… God give us all | The strength to walk | Safe in the burning furnace | Of this murderous world.
– from The Burning Fiery Furnace (libretto by William Plomer)

Listened this morning to a vivid performance of The Burning Fiery Furnace from the Aldeburgh Festival by Mahogany Opera produced in Orford Church, the space for which the three Church Parables were planned and premiered. (Memory: this is where we saw a 2003 production of Lucretia, which generated interesting discussion and disagreement over the Christianization of the story vis-à-vis the ending. Both our Britten-Pears Programme directors, Michael Chance and Tim Carroll, felt strongly the anachronistic redemption of the ancient Roman tragedy “didn’t work.”) The Burning Fiery Furnace production certainly did work – it was so well-paced, balanced and characterized – you could imagine Nebuchadnezzar’s elaborate robes, the Babylonian “god of gold,” the stained-glass window behind which the Angel appears, etc, etc - just listening via online radio.

[N.B. Having long sat with these pieces and considered programming them, this morning was the first time I believed the right production could not only be pulled off locally, but would be both entertaining and moving. The instrumental march, for example, would be a sure hit when done with a band who embraces the drama (as they must). It would require particular care in casting and production planning, and would have to be strongly supported by the right church.]

Britten’s String Quartets – this Centenary year and weekend notwithstanding – are a neglected room in the mansion of his legacy, especially on the US side of the pond. This is our loss. His first quartet was commissioned by the same American patron (Elizabeth Coolidge) who sought new quartets from Bartok and Schoenberg. Composed while he was in the US in 1941, Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 25, won the young émigré a Gold Medal from the Library of Congress for service to Chamber Music. Its shimmering opening – a perilously difficult passage for the upper strings – reflect the “California Sun” where Britten and Pears were living at the time, according to the composer, David Matthews. The Andante third movement is an early example of Britten’s gift for masterfully sustained lyricism; a trait he shared with his musical heroes Mozart, Schubert and Mahler.

One of the reasons the Quartets (like much of his instrumental output) are lesser known is
a result of the large shadows cast by his operas and vocal works. String Quartet No. 2 in C, op. 36, comes from 1945, the same year as Peter Grimes, and the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. Written after his Purcell inspired song-cycle, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the 2nd Quartet is dedicated to Britten’s beloved Baroque forbear. The first of the quartet’s three movements was described by the scholar Hans Keller as Britten’s “most deliberate masterpiece.” The final movement, longer than the first two combined, is a Purcellian ground-bass “Chacony,” with 21 (!) variations.

Keller hoped Britten would continue to write chamber music, and string quartets in particular. He would have to wait 30 years for the realization of this wish, in what must be one of the most poignant examples of delayed gratification in classical music. What is remarkable is the consistency of not only inspiration, but style, voice and character.

Originally called a “Divertimento,” String Quartet No. 3 in G, op. 94, was completed in Venice in 1975. Though most Britten commentators cite the "arch form" of its 5-movements by linking the outer movements, I would call the form chiastic, and highlight the central, “Song,” movement as its crux. The opening movement is called “Duets,” and features aptly named textures between the voices. The final movement is subtitled “La Serenissima,” after Britten’s (and Pears’) favorite city; a place to which they repaired at crucial times in the composer’s career, and where he always was able to work with inspiration. In addition to assuming another Baroque form (“Passacaglia”) the 5th movement quotes from Death in Venice and mirrors the journey of the opera’s hero, Aschenbach. This was the final role Britten wrote for his muse and partner, Peter Pears. The central movement of his final quartet is a ravishing song without words. It is Britten’s "Adagietto" to Pears, as that of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was to Alma (and beloved by Britten long before Mahler was in vogue. See below for more on Mahler and Britten. On another note, Britten dedicated his Nocturne, op. 60 to Alma Mahler; their correspondence is mutually supportive and admiring).

Britten’s instrumental Schwanengesang is one of his most sublime achievements. Its rarified atmosphere is possessed ‘of a profound beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious—overwhelming,’ according to none other than Pears himself.

All three of the Church Parables and String Quartets were part of the Britten 100 festivities from BBC Radio 3 and are available online for the next week.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Britten Notebooks: II (for his Centenary weekend)

Yesterday I posted several notebook entries here: quotes from other scholars
and some of my own writings, including some poems I hope to include in a portrait
poem of Britten. Inquiring minds can also check out a couple of links on the Opera Blog,
as Britten is on the air practically 24-7 this weekend on BBC and around the UK. Cheers!

Britten Notebooks, November 2013 (cont.)

Our job is to be useful, and to the living. – Britten
from John Culshaw’s Ben – A Tribute to Benjamin Britten (in DECCA: The Complete Works)
His was a complex character, and superficially full of contradictions. He was world-famous but he did not care for the trappings of fame. He was a marvelous pianist and conductor, yet he did not enjoy performing and the prospect of a concert performance sometimes made him literally sick. As he grew older, he seemed to harbour increasing doubts about his own works – doubts which were not shared by his colleagues or by the public…

A deceptive simplicity, an earthliness, lies behind all his music, just as it lies behind the music of his beloved Schubert

Britten 100 | BBC Radio 3 Features

“There was a sort of alchemy about Ben… it [the music] poured out of him” (Jenny Walker, on the “magical atmosphere” in The Death of St Narcissus and other works from the ‘70’s).

“Ben was less a conductor than a complete musician… Every voice [in the orchestra] was clear…he kept persisting…as if by sheer force of will…it had more to do with his personality…one had an attitude to his conducting that was completely different…an almost religious attitude… it was one degree higher [compared with other conductors] – Anita Wallfisch, on playing in the ECO with Britten for repertoire ranging from Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Debussy, Shostakovich and Britten’s own works (i.e.: ’64 concert with Rostropovich – premiere of Haydn cello concerto with Britten’s cadenza’s, along with BB’s Cello Symphony).

Back to Kovnatskaya’s “Notes on a Theme from Peter Grimes.” (in On Mahler and Britten, see below)

This universe is but the discharge of passions | longs stored in the human heart. – Boris Pasternak

Mahler is the center where Britten and Shostakovich meet. “Russian Shostakovich studies devote no less an important place to the Shostakovich – Mahler digression than Britten scholars in England lend to the Britten-Mahler parallel.” (p. 177)

In “Kafka and his Precursors,” Borges wryly proves how a contemporary creator informs his interpreters’ understanding of the process of influence. Knowing the connection between Britten’s Death in Venice and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, I listen to the latter in another way. Mahler influences Britten. Mahler is Britten’s precursor. This, then is the context for another example from Russian poetry with which Kovnatskaya enriches her readers: “This is one of the mechanisms of ‘cultural memory’ about which Osip Mandelstam wrote in terms of genetic continuity:”

We are all, even without realizing it, carriers of an enormous embryological experience… the whole process of experience, which culminates in the memory’s triumphant effort, is amazingly similar to the process of growth…this all develops not of its own accord,but merely as a response to an invitation, as a reaching out in justification of all expectation.

Of the inexplicable force Das Lied had on him, Britten wrote, “I cannot understand it – it passes over me like a tidal wave – and that matters not a jot either, because it goes on for ever, even if it is never performed again – that final chord is printed on the atmosphere” (from 29 June 1937, in Britten: Letters from a Life, Vol. 1). Shostakovich thought it was both “the greatest thing of genius created in music,” and given “only one hour left to live,” he said he “should choose the finale of Das Lied von der Erde” (p. 183).

Kovnatskaya concludes:
Looking at these reflecting mirrors and prisms of Britten, Mahler and Shostakovich, many new details come into focus…Britten assimilated Shostakovich’s musical language in the style of Mahler, then Shostakovich’s late style betrays elements of Britten’s musical language, again through a Mahlerian prism. Without Mahler a comparative study of the music of Bitten and Shostakovich loses in dimension, depth and inherent meaning, since for both of them Mahler was the embodiment of eternal values, of that ‘blessed inheritance’ (Mandelstam), and of that soul-scorching sense of the modern world. (p. 184)

Postscript: Britten’s letter of 29 June 1937 to Henry Boys opens with this wry remark:
It is now well past midnight & society dictates that I should stop playing the Abschied.

Before he describes the “tidal wave” effect of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the 23-year-old composer sounds more like a philosopher or poet:

It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness & pain: of strength & freedom. The beauty of disappointment & never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature, and everlasting beauty of monotony.

(Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, Vol. One 1923-39)

It may seem easy to dismiss such arm-chair aphorisms as the romantic musings typical of a young artist. Knowing Britten’s life and work, however, makes it difficult to read such observations as anything but prescient, if not prophetic. What might the “everlasting beauty of monotony” be besides the perfect essence of a single pure melody? Mahler’s Abschied closes with the soloist singing a descending two-note motive on the word, “ewig,” while the orchestra echoes and cushions the “eternal” essence the composer has depicted. An enormous sphere of sound – “the song of the earth” – has been reduced to a single note: a mono-tone. Britten’s texture of choice in his last decade could be seen as variations on this theme. His beloved Gamelan music, and the timeless chant-inspired textures of the late works aim for such an everlasting beauty, that, however rarified, simple and austere, is anything but monotonous.

(The Red House, Aldeburgh - where Britten and Pears lived from 1957)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Britten 100: Notebooks for his Centenary

Britten Notebooks November 2013

For I have a greater compass of both mirth and melancholy than another…
(from Jubilate Agno – C. Smart)

Centenary Week | 17.XI.13

In one sitting, reading a dozen of Britten’s Letters from a Life (in the sixth and final volume) one encounters separate references to a quartet of eminent artists who were living when this volume appeared just last year (2012). In the notes accompanying their appearances, I entered years of death for Hans Werner Henze, Colin Davis, Galina Vishnevskaya, and Jonathan Harvey. I am only on page 99 out of 700 + pages. The great novelist Doris Lessing died the very day (17.XI.13) I read those letters and wrote this note.

While listening to Shostakovich’s Mahlerian 4th symphony (did Britten know it? given its suppression during Stalin's terror, Britten may never have heard it), I turn a page in the Letters to one from 25 September 1966 he wrote his Russian colleague, wishing DSCH a happy 60th birthday, and “many more years of inspired creative activity” – DS would have 9; BB a mere 7 – “to give the world more of your splendid music.” The essence of bittersweet.

The Tallis Scholars celebrate their 40th anniversary and Peter Philips is the guest on the BBC 3 Early Music show this Sunday. Noted for their crystalline purity of sound, critics have found Philips and his ken “cold,” even “bloodless.” His response is perfect, and applies not only to the “straight-tone” approach to choral music, but perhaps also to the British temperament in general, and a composer like Britten in particular. “The cool surface hides a tremendous emotional charge. Once you understand that, well then you’re hooked.”

It could not have been lost on Britten the action of Billy Budd, as stated in the Prologue and Epilogue by Captain Vere – the role written for his partner and muse, Peter Pears – is set in 1797, the year of Franz Schubert's birth, one of his favorite composers. The composer he loved more than Beethoven or Brahms, one whom he ranked just under Mozart, one he interpreted with searing intensity and penetrating intimacy, whether with Pears or Fischer-Dieskau or Richter. [N.B. Listen again to his anecdote about meeting Schubert in a dream, and its blessed effect on the following days.]

Listening to the MET’s first broadcast of Billy Budd, from 1979 is notable enough. It also marked Pears’ last MET performance, and represented a “passing of the torch” between another pair of singers. The Budd in Britten’s classic DECCA recording, Peter Glossop, plays Vere’s Lieutenant, while the young baritone, Richard Sitwell sings the title role. At the MET’s most recent remount, its previous Budd, Dwayne Croft, sang the Lt, while its new Budd, Nathan Gunn, had been the Novice’s friend in Croft’s run as Britten’s martyred hero. Musically, the performance is dominated by Raymond Leppard’s incisively dramatic pacing of the sprawling score, and, for me at least, Pears’ remarkably ageless singing. Yes, his Vere is “an old man,” but at 69, he is a better Britten tenor than most others at any age. It's frustrating to this Britten fan that the MET is broadcasting Vickers' Peter Grimes three times this week, rather than Rolfe Johnson's &/or Langridge's, both of whom were renowned Britten tenors, whereas the great Canadian was known for his dramatic Verdi and Wagner roles (Britten infamously walked out of a performance of Grimes featuring Vickers).

In her excellent essay on a theme from Peter Grimes (in On Mahler and Britten), Ludmila Kovnatskaya quotes her fellow Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, on “the whole process of experience,” which Britten would have referred to as tradition.

We are all, even without realizing it, carriers of an enormous embryological experience…
the whole process of experience, which culminates in the memory’s triumphant effort,
is amazingly similar to the process of growth

Some of my Adventures with Ben Britten

In one, I’m riding in the back of
his old red car while he and the
daughter of the composer who
wrote the music of the 7 spheres
discuss more practical matters.
“Happy listener,” I have never
been more. In another,
Peter Pears sings a
mysterious Nocturne in a
blue room high up in an
ancient tower. All three of us
are together inside a cabin
amidst snowy woods (though
I’d have to check my diary
to see what we discussed or
played or listened to). The
best one was the night I
asked him to appear and
he did, not just once but
repeatedly. The first time,
he had us all in stitches
as he made fun of himself,
“taking the piss” and turning
the tables by telling a story
of a joke another singer
played on Peter and him.
He was red as a poppy
by the time he finished
guffawing at how stuffy
he’d been back then – Ah,
Ben. But later, he and Peter
appeared for a 1986 revival
of Midsummer Night’s Dream
at a crowded outdoor festival. How
did we find ourselves there,
Britten looking fresh as he
did at its ’62 premiere, and
Pears, ageless as ever, no
sign of death imminent
for either one of them.

all art being | a form of violence | as a peony | is violence
(from “The Problem of Hands,” – L. Mathias)

Here the strong mallow strikes her slimy root | Here the dull night-shade hangs her deadly fruit
(from "Marsh Flowers" - G. Crabbe)


Ben loves HIS.
HIS stands for:

Hello, Isolating Sea.
Highly Irregular Stomach.
Help! I’m Sick.
Hate Intensifies Stupidity.
Heal. Icarus. Sun.
H Is Spirit
Hallelujah! Inspired Smart

Ben and Peter.

He Is Superior.
Hesitating. In Sequins?
Home. Ink. Shingle.
Hurt. Illness. Sorry.
Humiliating Internal Surprises.
Honey, I’m silly.
Here, It’s Safe.


Benjamin Britten writes a letter

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages…
O weep, child weep, O weep away the stain
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led
(from “Hymn for St Cecilia's Day,” W.H. Auden)

Dear Cency:

Please forgive my being out of touch so long, my boy. You must have thought I’d forgotten you! Of course we’ve been terribly busy with concerts – you should hear Peter these days: he sings like an angel, a Greek hero, and the god of music himself! Our festival is now in its 66th year – can you believe it? I remember when you helped us start it. We could never have done it without your vision and indefatigable energy, your wide-eyed imagination and playful sense of adventure. Thank you, thank you, dearest & most cherished friend of those prelapsarian years. We have missed you more than we thought possible. We have neither seen nor heard of you for some time now. Where have you been? Whose dreams are you inspiring, and with whom are you toying? Which choir is blessed with your ever-pure treble, oh muse of the perilous heights? I can imagine your sweet, coy smile as you read this. Alas, time, old-age, sickness, and decay have well-acquainted us with your nemeses. I’m sure I did not get it right in my settings of Blake’s “Songs and Proverbs,” but the poet of the “Poison’d Tree” most certainly did. Only it is we who are now felled. How I hated to leave Peter. In the end, those we love matter most. Yet looking back, it seems I devoted my entire life to you, sweet boy: to finding you again – to healing the rift when you were taken from us. Or did we let you go? Whether searching for you in others – to my ultimate disappointment & their inevitable frustration – whether trying to recreate you through music or living vicariously through the children of our friends, I could only catch a glimpse of you, dearest Innocence; I could never touch you, never know you again. Perhaps you, too, were merely another ghost, a phantom from the irreparable past.
Will I ever see you again?
With much love,

Friday, 22 November 2013 | Britten’s 100th birthday | St Cecilia’s Day

Notes from Christopher Palmer's essay "Towards a Genealogy of Death in Venice."

He who once has looked on Beauty has lost himself irretrievably to Death. – from Platen’s Tristan

Death, beauty, love, eternity: these are language symbols for this at once platonic and intoxicatingly musical soul-miracle… - Thomas Mann on Platen

The “dangerous fascination” of the sea – Mann quoting Nietzsche –
the Sea, as symbol of the nothingness which is everythingness…


Fragment for Benjamin Britten

Aldeburgh beach! I can feel
the shingle, like loose
cobblestones underneath
my feet. I can hear
the sui generis sound
of the North Sea breaking
over the smooth-stone surface,
scraping away as it ebbs,
as if Thetis and her
Nereids were taking back
whatever remnants remain
from all the dead.

(July 2013)