Sunday, June 06, 2004

Hail, Britten-ia

Two bloggers present contrasting opinions on Benjamin Britten's music. They are both well written, and (interestingly) both British. Jessica Duchen says that Britten's music is "dreary, weak, boring and overrated..." with a main emphasis later in the post on the weakness. She finds his climaxes to be incomplete or undramatic, a sign of his decision to stay in Neverland. Helen Radice respectfully disagrees. In the opera that Jessica mentions, The Turn of the Screw, Helen points out that the plot is meant to be inconclusive and unclear, so Britten's music is showing a deft sensitivity to the dramatic scene. She also argues that this awareness of literary interpretation is what makes Britten such a fine British composer.
Britten, more than any other composer I know, has the most extraordinary affinity with literature, particularly the British canon. Britain, it must be said, struggles to compete musically with France, Germany and Russia in terms of how many truly great composers we can boast. Johnson described us way back when as "a nation without music." Of course we have music, great music, but we don't have so much of it, and we don't have Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms. Our literature, however, is arguably the greatest in the world. Shakespeare is the greatest poet who ever lived: the Bach of his field. It is chiefly through our literature that our national identity is articulated, and our language has - thanks to an enormous breadth of influence from Old French to Hebrew - the most extraordinary richness, power and vigour. Britten tunes in to it all: Old and Middle English verses; Shakespeare; TS Eliot; the War Poets; and myriad lesser-known writing. He not only selects marvellous and moving sources in the first place; he understands them. It would be so easy to score The Turn of the Screw as a ghost story only: but the novel's entire interest comes from its uneasy mixture of ordinary ghost story and disturbing metanarrative.

I have always been a fan of Britten, starting with singing from his Ceremony of Carols and Glorianna when I was a young chorister, and moving to his operas, chamber and orchestral works in college. In any 20th century course I teach, I use either Peter Grimes or the Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings. As a response to Jessica's preference for Elgar or Walton, I teach Britten more often because his compositional style is much more influential on styles that follow. You can hear shades of Britten in Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles, or in Stephen Sondheim's Passion. Elgar is more of a compositional dead end, though one I enjoy immensely. Look at the daring use of rhythm, of modality and atonality mixed with glorious tonal harmonies in Britten's work, compared to the Romantic strains of Elgar, and you can see why Britten is considered a better face of British 20th century music. Jessica may have a point that Britten's music has been championed partly because of his homosexuality, but it does not make his music less worthy.

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