Benjamin Britten: An Appreciation
As some few examples of his wide-ranging and eclectic style: Britten wrote a powerful setting of "The ugly Duckling" for boy soprano and piano; he wrote a chamber opera for liturgical performance, "Curlew River," based on the Japanese Noh drama "Sumidagawa," he wrote his important operas, of course, the best of them based on literary masterpieces of the 19th C.; and the sublime "War Requiem," which incorporates poems by Wilfred Owen, is a masterpiece of 20th C. artistry in response to the pity of war.
And I was attracted to Britten because, like me, he was a gay composer. His life-long partner, tenor Peter Pears, was often the important voice in many of his greatest works, including the "War Requiem" and the operas. Pears was both lover and muse to Britten, and many works were written specifically for him to premiere.
I have performed on more than one occasion his famous Yuletide work "A Ceremony of Carols," for chorus and harp. I first performed that work in high school, and several times since. It was one of a few works I encountered at the end of high school and beginning of college that led me towards an in-depth study of Medieval music; especially medieval English carols, which I made a special study of while in music school. I cheerfully thank Britten for being one of the composers who pointed me towards Medieval music, therefore, which has been very important to my musical life, and remains so to this day.
I'm certain Britten has influenced me directly, at least on some subconscious level, as a composer. There are a few 20th C. composers—Britten, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, etc.—whose works I have performed and studied, who all had the gift of writing amazing, memorable melodies. I know that's been an influence on me.
As a composer, I often focus more on melody, and interwoven contrapuntal and heterophonic melodies, than I do on harmony or tonality. Melody, whether it's song or instrumental, is the core of the music i write. In analyzing my own musical habits, several years ago, I realized that melody is at the heart of everything I do as a composer; sometimes it's tangled up, sometimes it's quite dissonant, but it remains central to what I hear and what I write.
I have a permanent soundtrack in the back of my mind, which is always playing something, or making up something. Melody is at the core of what I hear with my inner voice, that permanent soundtrack, which I dip into, which I listen to, when I am writing music. I recognize certain patterns that evoke a particular feeling or nuance for me, that are melodic, sometimes based within a complex chord, sometimes very simple.
I can recognize some aspects of the musical context around the melodies I write—the modal forms, the complex chords, the occasionally dissonant backdrops—as having been influenced by Britten, as well as by Messiaen, Harrison, Takemitsu, and some others. The patterns and structures are not imitative, not obvious in any way, beyond the "flavor" or "feel" of the music. I do tend to write modally rather than tonally, as most of these influences on me also did.
Here then are three quotes from Benjamin Britten, the great 20th C. British composer:
There should be no such profession as criticism. Musicologists, of course, are quite different, and this is a sadly neglected profession in this country—but there should definitely be no regular critics. To go through life living off other people's work clearly has too degrading an effect.
—Benjamin Britten, essay "Variations on a Critical Theme"
I like here the distinction he makes between musicology, which is the study and appreciation of music, and criticism. Musicology, which I minored in, in music school, is the study of music, its history and forms, its aesthetic and artistic response to life, and so forth. In graduate school, I majored in ethnomusicology, which is the anthropological, ethnographic, and fieldwork-based study of the music cultures of foreign cultures from all around the world. (Ethno also includes the study of our own music culture, but from an anthropological and social perspective.) Music criticism is best done as narrative reporting, a description of a concert or other performance. Music criticism at its worst is ideological, prescriptive, and tends to dictate aesthetics rather than respond as an enthusiastic reviewer.
Or, as Duke Ellington said, in a similar context: Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they really did.
Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, 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.
—Benjamin Britten, (speech) On Receiving the First Aspen Award
Britten is speaking here of the necessity for active listening, as opposed to passive entertainment. I agree strongly with this. The listener needs to be not only intellectually, but viscerally engaged with music. Music is not an intellectual art, it engages the feelings directly—and it can do so without even engaging the verbal, rational mind, but can bypass it entirely.
I have had occasion to argue with poets who had the opinion the poetry was the greatest (most rarified, highest) artform, because language is so abstract; but music is even more abstract, not even requiring language (symbolic or otherwise) to be able to create a powerfully moving aesthetic experience.
Britten, like other composers I have admired, was a composer who knew the power of words-and-music, how the two together can synergize into something greater than just each part alone. His choral and solo vocal writing is sublime, some of the most pleasing to sing as a performer, and even at its most complex it retains a sense of being rooted in primal human song, the communal activity of singing together, in a way that makes us into one voice. We achieve unity through song, through making art together. And this is an aspect of English choral music that is well-known, in its applications of social cohesiveness, and also of singing together in church, making us all spiritually one through the medium of unitary song.
All of us—the public, critics, and composers themselves—spend far too much time worrying about whether a work is a shattering masterpiece. Let us not be so self-conscious. Maybe in thirty years' time very few works that are well known today will still be played, but does that matter so much? Surely out of the works that are written some good will come, even if it is not now; and these will lead on to people who are better than ourselves.
—Benjamin Britten, interviewed by Edmund Tracey (Sadler's Wells Magazine, Autumn 1966)
This speaks directly to me as an artist and composer. Indeed, "Let us not be so self-conscious." That actually inhibits creativity, that kind of self-consciousness about always needing to create an original masterpiece. I can think of at least two composers I knew in music school who crippled themselves creatively by being too perfectionistic, too concerned about originality, too worried about the end result—to the point where they basically stopped writing music. This kind of perfectionism in art can thus be crippling to the artist.
Britten's attitude, by contrast, is more relaxed. He was a working composer all his life–and in some ways his attitudes towards his work were craftsmanlike, very artisanal. Not that he didn't always give his best, as a good craftsman ought; rather, he did his best work, then moved on to the next project. There were no endless rewrites and reworkings, the sort of compulsive editing that can take an actual masterpiece and destroy it. To make a masterpiece, you have to be able at some point to just stop, and declare the work done. There may well still be imperfections, things you would fix, or do differently. But the attitude Britten had, which could serve as a good role-model for any artist, was to look forward to fixing his mistakes in the next work. He did revise his work, but not neurotically. Often it takes a new occasion, some time after the original work's conception, that gives one the chance to fix things; and also the time to gain a clearer perspective on what might need to be fixed, and what can stand already as good enough.