Happy 100th Birthday to Britten, written by Michael Nutt for the EDP
Next month sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lowestoft-born composer, Benjamin Britten, and the climax to over a year of musical celebrations around the world. I have been privileged to coordinate the local celebrations, Familiar Fields (the name is taken from a line in Peter Grimes), which has seen almost 300 performances of Britten’s music across Suffolk and Norfolk since September 2012.
Britten was born on 22nd November 2013 – the patron saint of music, St Cecilia’s Day. He was still alive when I was a young horn-player in the Norfolk Youth Orchestra and I was still a music student when he died aged only 63 in 1976. But he loomed large in the musical world I was eagerly discovering as a young musician, all the more so because of his deep-seated roots in nearbyAldeburgh.
And he seems such a strangely familiar figure to me still, the abundant photos from his extensive archive somehow chiming with my own black and white memories of the 60s and early 70s. A major figure of British music celebrated around the world, both as composer and performer, a beacon of the East Anglian cultural community, creator of Snape Maltings Concert Hall and the Aldeburgh Festival.
Yet he has always been regarded as a rather controversial character. He lived with his life-long partner, the tenor Peter Pears (for whom he wrote so much of his music) at a time when homosexuality was positively suppressed, and, a firm pacifist, he was famously a conscientious objector during the Second Word War. His precocious talent and artistic success also provoked jealousy and resentment among contemporaries and many erstwhile acquaintances found themselves excluded from his select circle of intimate friends.
Remnants of this resentment and animosity perversely somehow persist in some quarters today and yet his legacy – so wonderfully showcased by the centenary celebrations over the past year or so – stands any scrutiny. If anyone chooses to question his convictions for example, then look no further than the War Requiem, his remarkable protest against the futility and tragedy of human conflict.
Written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral (built in 1963 alongside the shell of the original cathedral destroyed in the Blitz), its setting of the war poetry of Wilfred Owen struck such a chord at its premiere that a staggering 200,000 copies of the first recording were sold in a year. Its emotional impact remains as powerful today.
The role of great art, it seems to me, is to awe and to move us, but it must also challenge and discomfit us, make us think and ask questions. Britten’s music does all this. Yes, some of his music may seem challenging to the casual listener, perhaps a little strident or difficult on the ear even. But if there is a reason for that at times, there is also so much more that is really approachable. Britten’s music can be lyrical and sensuous, uplifting and life-affirming – try my Top 10 below and see for yourself.
Britten didn’t enjoy the esoteric circles of cultural life in London; he preferred the tranquillity and home-comforts of his beloved Aldeburgh. And as a composer he didn’t live in an ivory tower. He wanted his music to be ‘useful’ – “I would rather my music used than write masterpieces that are not used”, he said. His vast output for young people and for amateur musicians – people of East Anglia whose community he shared – reflects that wish. (Reminiscences of people who took part in some of those early performances and thoughts of others recently coming to his music for the first time are captured in a new audio-visual exhibition showing at the Forum in Norwich from 18th November to 7th
As much as in his great works for the opera stage or the concert hall, his true legacy lies in the children’s songs ‘Friday Afternoons’ or his children’s opera Noye’s Fludde, both of which are delighting schoolchildren and their audiences in performances next month. Britten was a great man as well as a great composer. I urge you to seize the opportunity to enjoy the final few weeks of his remarkable centenary year and listen to his music with open ears.
A Top 10 of Britten’s Music
1. Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra – Perhaps the most popular of Britten’s works, his introduction to the instruments of the orchestra is a set of variations on a theme by Henry Purcell, a composer he much admired. It features in a special Family Concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Snape Maltings on 23 November.
2. Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings – try the Nocturne, a setting of words by Tennyson, including the line ‘Blow bugle blow, Set the wild echoes flying’ which features on the Royal Mint’s new commemorative 50p coin marking the centenary. Hear it played by Britten Sinfonia with tenor Mark Padmore and horn player Stephen Bell at the Theatre Royal Norwich on 17 November.
3. Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes – Depicting the changing moods of the sea around Aldeburgh, these orchestral interludes reflect the ever-present force in the story of Peter Grimes and his fishing community. ‘Sunday Morning’ is a good place to start. Hear all four played live by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a special centenary tribute concert at the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 29 November
4. War Requiem – Britten’s intensely moving anti-war masterpiece. The Dies Irae or ‘Day of Wrath’ will knock your head off! You can hear it live at St Andrews Hall Norwich on 9 November when Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus are joined by three soloists, two conductors plus the Academy of St Thomas, UEA Choir and Norwich Cathedral choristers.
5. A Hymn to the Virgin – One of his best-loved pieces for unaccompanied choir, written when Britten was still at Gresham’s and supposed to be resting while ill. It is performed in a St Cecilia’s Day Concert at Gresham’s School Chapel, Holt on Britten’s 100th
6. Friday Afternoons – Written for his schoolmaster brother’s school, this delightful set of 12 songs have been the focus of a major national educational project this year and they will be performed by school children on the anniversary date, Friday 22nd and locally at St Andrews Hall, Norwich and Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.
7. Three Divertimenti – Britten wrote a huge amount of chamber music for all kinds of different combinations of instruments. This piece for string quartet is a light-hearted early work which the Carducci Quartet play live at the John Innes Centre on 23 November.
8. Noye’s Fludde – Although there are parts for professional musicians and adult voices, this Chester Miracle Play is performed almost entirely by children to enchanting effect. Judge for yourself with performances by local school children conducted by Britten scholar Paul Kildea in St Margaret’s Church, Lowestoft, on 21, 22 and 23 November.
9. Violin Concerto – Given a superb performance by Lorraine McAslan with Academy of St Thomas in Norwich earlier this year, this work combines sparkling virtuosity with an elegiac sorrow that reflects Britten’s despair at the onset of war in Europe.
10. Funeral Blues – This is one of four Cabaret Songs which Britten wrote for the soprano Hedli Anderson, a setting of W. H Auden’s poem ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’, famously used in the film ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’.
For extensive clips of Britten’s music go to http://www.britten100.org/new-to-britten/the-music
Other performance highlights in Norfolk*
Friday 15 November – a lecture by the composer’s nephew John Britten and a concert of Britten’s school compositions, ‘A Joy to Us All’, at Big School, Gresham’s School, Holt
Mon 18 Nov-Fri 14 Dec – ‘Britten at the Forum’ – a major new audio visual presentation of people’s memories and experiences of Britten with a programme of supporting events, The Forum, Norwich.
Tues 19 November – ‘Into your satisfaction’ A presentation of Britten’s diaries and letters at the Auden Theatre, Gresham’s School, Holt
Wed 20 November – BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong from Norwich Cathedral featuring Britten’s choral music
Saturday 23 November – Hymn to St Peter (written for St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich) in a concert by North Norfolk Chorale at the Auden Theatre, Gresham’s School, Holt
Saturday 23 November – Mont Juic Suite – Wymondham Symphony Orchestra at Wymondham Abbey
(* There is also a major centenary weekend of events in and around Aldeburgh as well as performances at St Edmundsbury Cathedral and elsewhere in Suffolk – go to http://www.familiarfields.org for details)