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)

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