Assembling an anthem, with assistance from Whitman
July 3, 2017
"An Die Musik" premiered in Fredonia
December 4, 2017
Benjamin Britten at 100
November 22, 2013
The following is a sort-of "preview" of a lecture I gave on the School of Music Research Colloquium series at SUNY Fredonia on 4 December 2013.
My first definitive exposure to Britten’s music was in Middle School, when my mother, who directed a community choir, put together a performance of the SATB version of A Ceremony of Carols. I say “definitive” because during my early studies of his music at college, I came upon The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with the realization that I already knew it, but with no recollection of where or how I had first heard it. I clearly remember hearing that Ceremony of Carols performance, though, and the impression that this left on me. The music was so unique at a mere first listen - the blend of texts in an old language with the vibrant, energetic and angular harmonies and rhythms of a newer sound world. It was beautiful, mysterious – simply curious. And no other music had, or has ever, piqued my curiosity in that way.
Fast – forward to the spring of 2001, the end of my first year at college. Fulfilling the obligatory requirement for first-year students to sing in the audition-less Festival Chorus, I had the tremendous good fortune to participate in a performance of the War Requiem. This was indeed a rare concert opportunity (remember, this was pre – 9/11) and another unforgettable Britten moment for me. Standing amongst the hundreds surrounding me on the choral risers that day, in deep concentration as we maneuvered through the complex polymetric polyphony of the “Libera Me”, I recall (still with a shiver of terror) the climactic moment of that final movement, an apocalyptic tutti of maximum dynamic intensity. I remember watching the efforts of the village-sized orchestra in front of me: the mass of strings sawing away at their instruments, wind players gasping for larger intakes of air needed to sustain the volume that the drama of the moment requires– and I recall all this happening whilst I and my fellow choristers were wailing with all our strength. I couldn’t hear myself sing, nor my neighbor. Soon after that moment, the music memorably decays to a scene of remarkable softness and stillness – although the tension remains. As the tenor and bass soloists trade stanzas of Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”, depicting an imagined spiritual reunion and reconciliation between two enemy soldiers recently departed from the battlefield, I took a moment to observe the capacity audience in the concert hall. Most, if not all, were captivated,and visibly moved – this included fellow students of mine, my teachers and mentors, and community members with their children, perhaps grandchildren too. To be honest, this came as a surprise to me. Audiences are mixed bags; how could such a long, complex, challenging work result in such a universal, common experience for this crowd?
Seeking out an answer to this marked the beginning of my fascination, and devoted admiration, of Benjamin Britten – both the composer and his work. It’s easy for me to name him as my favorite composer, not because of the tired, bullet point “music-history-textbook” clichés – “greatest British composer since Purcell”; “reinvigorated Opera in English”, etc. Nor do I admire him merely on a composerly level, although it’d be easy to do so, given his master-craftsman technique for construction and orchestration, and the tight, crystal-clear organic quality of his language. Neither of these succinctly describes my passion for his work. Instead, I turn to Britten as a true model for the 21st century composer because of the experience described above – an experience that I find is a thrilling by-product of much of his opus– the ability to communicate to an audience on many levels. His skill at capturing the attention and compelling the ears of both the great musicians of his day, as well as the blue-haired elderly ladies of Aldeburgh, is a remarkable feat for a living composer to attain. It’s a challenge to pin down how he does this exactly on a piece-to-piece basis, and certainly some pieces are more universally communicative than others (I would hesitate to recommend Curlew River, the Cello Symphony, or Our Hunting Fathers to a first-time listener, in place of the Serenade or the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes). However, I think the essence of this communication lies in his activity as a composer in three ways:
First, he wrote for children throughout his entire life – and wrote for them effectively, idiomatically, and in a sophisticated context. In other words, Britten’s works for children do not lack the musical intrigue of his works for professional musicians – instead, he constantly found novel and unique ways to fold the limited abilities of young performers into a complicated, but directly communicative musical environment. Second, he found ways to do this for amateur/community performers as well. Works such as Saint Nicolas, Rejoice in the Lamb and The Building of the House were all written to include amateur performers – and as with the works for children, he doesn’t “write down” to an amateur level, but rather cloaks the restrictive abilities of non-professionals in inimitable musical events. His reliance on “vernacular” sources, such as imaginative re-castings of church hymns, folk-songs, and familiar literature, certainly contributes to this achievement. Finally, as well as writing new music for the young and non-professional, he also brought new music into the community. With the institution of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, Britten established his remote East Anglia hometown as a vibrant center of contemporary music – featuring premieres of not only works by Britten (about one a year!) but new works by other notable living composers as well. Some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century graced the stages of the Aldeburgh Festival, and many of Britten’s most notable works were written for premiere there. It’s easy to think of Britten’s reputation as a master of opera composition being established in the theatres of London – but quite a few of the operas were first performed in tucked-away Aldeburgh. For example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written to be premiered in the Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall (a venue similar in size and means to our local Fredonia Opera House) and the three Church Parables, written for first performance not in a theatre but in the nearby Orford Church. The activity surrounding the festival and its performance schedule, in turn, helped to stimulate the economy of its small hometown community.
In these ways, Britten made “contemporary music” not a taboo, but an essential part of the lives of the people in his world. He seemed to share his focus, deftly and comprehensively, between writing music for universal awareness as well as directly addressing his surrounding existence. In his speech on winning the first Aspen Award, he puts it succinctly:
“When I am asked to compose a work for an occasion, great or small, I want to know in some detail the conditions of the place where it will be performed, the size and acoustics, what instruments or singers will be available and suitable, the kind of people who will hear it, and what language they will understand—and even sometimes the age of the listeners and performers. For its is futile to offer children music by which they are bored, or which makes them feel inadequate or frustrated, which may set them against music forever; and it is insulting to address anyone in a language which they do not understand.”
I’ve always hoped that Britten’s “time would come”, and he would be given the same re-investigation and re-affirmation that Mahler had in the mid-20th century. Now, as his 100th birthday is celebrated with performances of his works around the world, perhaps this can be made, in my opinion, a much-deserved reality. For me, Britten is a composer from whom we can learn much, not only about craft, technique and style, but also making new artistic statements essential to the lives of everybody around us, in musical, social, humanistic and spiritual ways. There is still much to learn – as arts in schools suffer setbacks or eradication, and funding for the arts at community levels is nearing extinction, the time to find solutions for making contemporary arts part of our common language is now. Britten devoted his life to making this happen in the unlikeliest of places, while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of his individual artistic voice. His work is appreciable on so many levels, as I learned that day watching over the audience as our performance of War Requiem came to its moving conclusion. Many years later, I still pursue the potential of this communicative property in my own work, both as a composer and teacher. If the creative minds of our time are concerned for the livelihood of their artistic endeavors, perhaps Benjamin Britten deserves close consideration. And this consideration should reach beyond his talents as a composer, conductor and performer, but also as a model practitioner of contemporary music– a music that finds relevance in everyday life while still striving to achieve beauty, elegance, innovation, sophistication and direct emotional engagement.