Sunday, July 24, 2011

Benjamin Britten: An Appreciation

There was a period in my life as a composition student when I studied the music of Benjamin Britten intensively, not least because of his eclectic approach to composition. He himself was open to influence from many sources, including ancient musics from his own English tradition, and also including musics he encountered in his travels around the world as a composer and conductor.

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.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

If you’d asked me yesterday, when I first scanned this post, which of Benjamin Britten’s works I had copies of I would have said, A Simple Symphony, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra sans narration (although I’ve heard many narrated versions in my time, some truly awful) and his Violin Concerto. On checking I find I have quite a bit more, his Piano Concerto and the Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, the Viola Concerto, the Double Concerto, the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, his Spring Symphony, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and a wee bit of chamber music. No opera, no War Requiem.

This did not surprise me. I have loads and loads of music and there is no way I can keep track of it in my head. But now I have my wee list in front of me I realise that I am less familiar with Britten’s output than I am of, say, Vaughan Williams, Bax or Holst. I am not sure why this is. I just don’t find his work sticks. The Violin Concerto I bought on tape in a sale in Boots easily twenty-five years ago and since at the time my library was small I know I listened to it on a regular basis for years which is why I think it stuck. Most of the rest I acquired more recently and simply hasn’t had as much time but even there there have been other composers who I have discovered recently whose work has impressed itself on me, Hovhaness being a good example.

I struggle with opera at all levels but especially English-language operas – it helps, I find, if you have no idea what they’re saying – and I can tolerate little of the stuff, the odd aria like ‘Nessun dorma’ being the exception. Choral music is another beast entirely and I am very fond of it. I wish so much of it wasn’t as religious as it is but I can live with it. Operatic singing – and I include lieder in with this – just makes me want to scream much of the time. I simply cannot imagine sitting in my box with my glass of cheap plonk mopping my eyes while the fat lady sings.

I used to enjoy turning on Radio 3 in the car in the middle of some work and guessing who the composer was by the style. I recall impressing the hell out of my second year music teacher (so I’d be about 12) when I correctly identified a piece by Sibelius. Britten I struggle with. I’ve decided to have a Britten-day. I’ve just listened to A Simple Symphony and am now onto his Piano Concerto but there’s nothing jumping out at me that says ‘this is Britten’. I could just as easily be listening to Alan Rawsthorne or any other from that time. By that I mean it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of writing but it lack panache.

I agree totally with what he had to say about musicologists.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I realize that vocal music may not be your cup of tea, nonetheless Britten's works that include the voice, in whatever arrangement, are arguably his greatest works, and his greatest contribution. Call them "dramatic vocal works," if you prefer, whether they're for solo voice, chorus, or voice plus orchestra, oratorio, opera, whatever. That's where a lot of Britten's very best, most important writing arguably exists. Vocal music is where Britten excels.

The Cello Symphony is a great piece, though, and the Concertos are quite memorable. Britten's chamber works, such as the Cello Sonata, are also quite lovely. Like I said, Britten had a real gift for melody.

Britten is a bit less color-saturated than Vaughn Williams, a bit less overtly passionate than Holst, but his relative coolness and obliqueness is arguably to his advantage. In works like "Curlew River," which is understated on the surface, great depths of emotion are implied below the surface by Britten's arrangements and choral counterpoint to the lead voices. Britten was really good at implying great depths of feeling, even when not much is revealed obviously.

8:04 AM  

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