War, Peace and Benjamin Britten

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Every year, for quite a while now, I have made a practice of immersing myself in the music of one or two composers, even if much of it is familiar to me. This began when lecturing about music became an important part of my work.

Sometimes, I prepare for upcoming anniversaries, such as those of the birth (1860) and death (1911) of Gustav Mahler. His short life made 2010 and 2011 a long observance and, although he is one of the greats, I felt he did not receive the renewed exploration he merits. On other occasions, I revisit composers who always deserve fresh ears and an open mind. My connections to Mozart, Schubert, Donizetti and Shostakovich deepened significantly following these immersions.

This year I have been studying Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981). There are some commonalities in their lives and careers. Both wrote tonal orchestral music, great song cycles and important operas. Both were gay men who had long-term relationships with musician partners, living openly before such behavior was in any way accepted. Both wrote in English, yet the language and musical idiom each used were distinct. I will report on Barber in a future post.

There were two influences that made me return to Britten. One was his friendship with, and respect for, Dmitri Shostakovich, whose work I hold in even greater esteem since returning to study it. Britten championed the Russian composer’s music in the West and conducted his symphonies in the United Kingdom, including the first performance of the 14th Symphony.

Both men wrote song cycles based on the poems of Michelangelo, though Britten did it early in his career and gave it a subtle gay subtext while Shostakovich composed his cycle soon before his death in 1975 as a gesture of defiance of the Soviet Union. (Just as Michelangelo stood up to popes and Medicis in defense of free artistic expression, Shostakovich used these poems as a protest against totalitarianism.) Both composers were close friends of the cellist and conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich, whose wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, sang in the premiere of the War Requiem.

'The Habit of Art'

Last year I saw a play by Alan Bennett called The Habit of Art at the Royal National Theatre in London. The principal characters were Britten and the poet W.H. Auden. They had collaborated, as composer and librettist, on Britten’s first opera, Paul Bunyan, which premiered in New York in 1941. Both men were part of an expatriate community of artists in Brooklyn. Bennett’s play created a hypothetical meeting between the two men in the 1970s when both were ill and near death. They discuss creativity and ponder why artists feel an imperative to create, despite rejection, failure, and disruption of their lives beyond their work. 

The play brought me back to the writings of Auden and I found a revealing quotation that says a lot about the poet and some other creative people: “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” I don’t think this is always the case, but might well describe Britten, who was famously tetchy with most people apart from the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he had a creative and personal partnership from 1937 until Britten’s death. 

The year 2013 will be the bicentennial of the births of Wagner and Verdi, and they will be feted wherever people love opera. I will be among them. But I fear that the centennial of Britten’s birth will be muted by celebrations of the other two men. No composer born in the 20th Century has had more performances of his operas than Britten. Among those who composed operas in the last century, he ranks third after Puccini and Strauss in the number of performances.

Many tenor roles in Britten’s operas were created for Peter Pears. They are notable for their aching, searching sound, which was palpable in Pears’s voice and the characters he played. All of Britten’s vocal music, especially for tenor, is remarkable for the degree to which it permits the words to predominate while never sacrificing the beauty and specificity of the music. Young American tenor Nicholas Phan recently visited WQXR to talk about his new album of Britten songs. His use of language is exemplary, in the Pears style.

For many opera lovers, the powerful Canadian tenor Jon Vickers has come to personify the way Britten is to be sung, especially in his searing interpretation of the role of Peter Grimes, which premiered in 1945 with Pears and established Britten’s reputation. Here Vickers sings “Now the Great Bear” (a reference I forgot when writing a post on operatic bears). Other great artists have made this role their own, including the late Philip Langridge and, currently, Anthony Dean Griffey.

After Grimes, Britten’s most famous work is Billy Budd (1951), based on the Melville novella. The Met has a marvelous John Dexter production that will return for three performances in May 2012, starring Nathan Gunn and James Morris. Other works based on novellas are Death in Venice from Thomas Mann (1973) and The Turn of the Screw from Henry James (1954). Patricia Racette has distinguished herself in the role of the Governess and I hope she returns to it during the Britten centennial. I have never seen Britten’s comic opera, Albert Herring, although I understand it got a great production recently in Santa Fe, with Christine Brewer excelling in a funny role.

An opera that merits revisiting is 1953’s Gloriana. About the relationship of Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, it was written as part of the celebrations for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. She was not amused, it is said, with the depiction of her predecessor as more vain than wise. The English National Opera created an excellent production in the early 1980s starring Sarah Walker and Anthony Rolfe Johnson that was performed at the Met. Perhaps, six decades since taking the throne, Her Majesty might be more disposed to seeing Gloriana revived.

'War and Peace'

Apart from Peter Grimes, the piece Britten is most admired for is his 1962 War Requiem. He was a pacifist of great conviction, and moved to America in the late 1930s as clouds of war gathered in Europe. To some, pacifism is an escapist denial of responsibility in the face of real danger, while others view it as a profound and courageous approach to life akin to the non-violence practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. While Britten saw himself in that way, he began to feel that he needed to be present during England’s darkest hour. He and Pears sailed back home through dangerous waters in 1942 and gave many performances to provide relief and consolation to a nation enduring the Blitz. After the war, he and Yehudi Menuhin performed for survivors of concentration camps.

The War Requiem was commissioned for the rededication of Coventry cathedral, badly damaged by bombs in 1940. Britten drew texts from the Latin Mass for the Dead and the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in battle one week before the end of World War I. The composer conducted, with three carefully-chosen soloists: a British tenor (Pears), a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and a Russian soprano (Vishnevskaya), each representing a country that suffered greatly in World War II. Here, Pears sings the Agnus Dei:

On Sunday I heard a sublime performance of the War Requiem in Avery Fisher Hall as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Gianandrea Noseda led the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the American Boychoir and soloists Sabina Cvilak, Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside. Noseda has observed that Britten emulated Verdi, whose Requiem begins in silence and then rages at the injustices of the world before returning to silence. Here is Britten’s finale, perhaps from the American premiere at Tanglewood.


Photos: 1) Malcolm Sinclair as Benjamin Britten and Desmond Barritt as WH Auden in The Habit of Art (Catherine Ashmore)
2) A scene from Britten's Billy Budd at the Met (Winnie Klotz/Metropolitan Opera)