An Evening of Britten
Director of Music, Alex Patterson, takes us behind the repertoire of our upcoming concert of music by Benjamin Britten on Friday 22 November 2019.
Maggi Hambling’s ‘Scallop’ sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, was set up in 2003 to commemorate the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), who lived in the town for most of his composing life. It is inscribed by the quote – ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ – taken from Britten’s first major opera Peter Grimes, which was premiered at the re-opening of of Sadler’s Wells in 1945. The opera was not only important for Britten as a composer, but it was also a landmark moment for British music, and opera in particular – there hadn’t been an opera of note by a British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
By the age of 21, Britten had got his first job working at the General Post Office film unit, where he met W. H. Auden. The poet obviously had a very keen impact on the young composer, who wrote in his diary the following day: ‘Auden is the most amazing man, a very brilliant & attractive personality’. As well as being collaborators for films such as Coal Face and Night Mail, Auden became something of a mentor towards Britten and having a hand in many of the pieces Britten wrote in the late 1930s: providing the text for the first and last movements of the large orchestral song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936) and introducing Britten to Arthur Rimbaud’s work leading to the song cycle Les Illuminations (1939). Auden encouraged Britten to widen his aesthetic, intellectual and political horizons, and would later play an integral part in spurring Britten to explore his sexuality.
Two significant events in Britten’s life took place in 1937: his mother died, and he met the tenor Peter Pears. They met following a rehearsal of the BBC Singers, of which Peter was a member, and got to know each other later that year while they were both helping to clear out the home of a mutual friend, Peter Burra, who had died in an air crash. Pears quickly became an important musical inspiration for the composer and later life-long partner.
In April 1939, Britten and Pears set off to North America, away from the looming war in Europe. Together they settled into a bourgeois lifestyle with Auden and Christopher Isherwood who had moved there earlier the same year. Britten and Pears were more likely to be mistaken for a pair of public schoolmasters, but although the lifestyle didn’t suit them, it wasn’t until 1941 that a decision was made to return. Whilst in California, Britten happened to read an article on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe and on reading his poem The Borough containing the tragic story of Peter Grimes, he later reported: ‘I realised two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged’.
Hymn to St Cecilia
Benjamin Britten was born on 22 November, an auspicious day given it is also the Feast Day of St Cecilia (the patron saint of music). It is unsurprising, therefore, that Britten had desired to write an ‘ode’ to St Cecilia for quite some time. As early as 1935 there is evidence that Britten was struggling to find the right text for the work. It was during their time together in America that Britten asked Auden to provide a text for his ode to St Cecilia, which Auden sent in sections to Britten throughout 1940, alongside advice on how to be a better artist. In 1980 Pears recalled, ‘Ben… was no longer prepared to be dominated – bullied – by Wystan, whose musical feeling he was very well aware of… Perhaps he may have been said to have said goodbye to working with Wystan with his marvellous setting of the Hymn to St Cecilia’.
Britten started the work in America in 1940 but had only written part of the first movement when in March 1942, he and Pears boarded the MS Axel Johnson in New York for the month-long journey to England. The manuscript of the completed section of the piece was confiscated by customs officials, fearing the music was a secret code, but while at sea, Britten rewrote the confiscated part from memory and finished it on 2 April 1942.
Hymn to St Cecilia is set in three parts, interspersed with a varied refrain on ‘Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire’.
The first part concerns the legend of St Cecilia, who is supposed to have invented the organ in order to ‘enlarge her prayer’ – a deliberate use of both Roman and Christian imagery to highlight music’s ability to arouse and soothe.
The second part, a light and lively passage, could refer more to Britten himself (Auden had a history of goading Britten after all), the music conjuring up the image of a child who doesn’t want to grow up – the divided sopranos and tenors chasing each other like a teasing dance in the playground, with the altos and basses holding everything together as the mature adults. A letter from Auden to Britten just before the composer left America is quite telling: ‘Wherever you go, you are and probably always will be surrounded by people who adore you, nurse you, and praise everything you do… You are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself… to build yourself a warm nest of love… by playing the loveable, talented little boy’. The letter suggests that Britten needed to suffer for his art, and although he always battled against this, the ideas of lost innocence and the plight of the outsider never left him and come back time and again in his work.
The final part is restless, more regretful than before, and there is a sense of foreshadowing in the theme of lost innocence which develops in Britten’s later operas. Referencing the 17th century odes to St Cecilia, the words refer to different instruments: violin, drum, flute and trumpet, represented by alto, bass, soprano and tenor soloists.
A Ceremony of Carols
Whilst on their month-long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1942, Britten was drafting what Peter Pears described as ‘7 Christmas carols for women’s voices and harp’ – an instrument Britten had been studying in depth before his departure after receiving a commission for a harp concerto (unfulfilled for 27 years before he composed his Suite for harp for friend Osian Ellis). Armed with two harp manuals and a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems which the composer had picked up whilst the MS Axel Johnson was berthed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten composed the set, with Pears working on a draft scenario for the opera Peter Grimes in the next room – as Britten himself commented, ‘one had to alleviate the boredom!’ It received its first performance at Norwich Castle in December 1942.
A Ceremony of Carols is bookended by the Gregorian chant ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’ which is also heard in the central harp solo. Following the opening Processional, the work bounds forth into ‘Wolcum Yole’, a child-like excitement for the New Year, before the resonant ostinato bass in ‘There Is No Rose’ which underpins a more adult wonder of the unparalleled Virgin Mary. The lachrymose tear drops in ‘That Yongë Child’ lead directly into Mary’s lullaby for the infant Jesus, Balulalow, contrastingly filled with inner warmth. The exuberant ‘As Dew In Aprille’ describes the mystery of God becoming man, before the fiery battle between heaven and Satan’s forces in ‘This Little Babe’. The Interlude ornaments the opening plainchant in the resonant key of C-flat (when all the strings are at their longest). We encounter the shivering tremolos of ‘In Freezing Winter Night’ before returning to a more child-like playfulness in ‘Spring Carol’. The declamatory climax of ‘Deo Gracias’ gives thanks for the Fall of Adam, the ultimate cause of Christ’s coming, with an exhilarating ‘pile on’ of vocal entries before the work ends as it began with the triumphal ‘Hodie’.
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard
By the time Britten turned 30 in November 1943, performances of A Ceremony of Carols were proving a sell-out. Three weeks later he wrote to Elizabeth Mayer, a translator and editor with whom both he and Pears stayed between 1939 and 1940, and dedicatee of Hymn to St Cecilia: ‘I am quickly scribbling a short choral work for a prison camp in Germany where some friends of mine are.’ This was The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard written at the request of Richard Wood, whose sister Anne had been in the BBC Singers with Pears and who was imprisoned at the Eichstätt in Germany, where he had organised a male voice choir. Britten’s stance as a conscientious objector in World War II is well known but his sympathies for those caught up in its ramifications were as deeply felt as anyone’s. The music, we are told, was parachuted to the camp on microfilm and received seven performances there. Britten’s letter to Elizabeth Mayer continued – ‘Then I start the opera – for production next Summer!’.
The text is an old tale of betrayal and adultery. Lady Barnard has a secret assignation which is revealed by Lord Barnard’s page; as a result of this the Lady gets caught in the act and is murdered.
Choral Dances from Gloriana
By the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, Britten was well established as the preeminent British opera composer given the success of Peter Grimes (1945) and the all-male Billy Budd (1951). The commission to write a new opera to honour the occasion was perhaps brought about by Lord Harewood, a friend of the composer and cousin to the Queen, who Britten suggested had bullied the Queen into it. The first performance took place 6 days after the coronation at a gala event at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but the reception was less than favourable. The national press were harsh in their reviews and the audience of the gala premiere – largely made up of unmusical diplomats and dignitaries – were baffled by the work.
The three-act opera depicts the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, through several tableaux, rather than a developed narrative. The first Elizabeth is presented as a sympathetic, but flawed, character motivated largely by vanity and desire.
The Choral Dances occur at the beginning of Act II. Elizabeth I is making her royal progress to Norwich and her loyal subjects decide to present a masque in her honour. Originally choreographed and performed by dancers from the Royal Ballet, the six short movements were introduced by the Spirit of the Masque. The sequence begins with the appearance of the demigod Time, ‘lusty and blithe’, who is followed by his wife Concord. After Time and Concord have danced together, country girls, rustics and fishermen join in the celebrations before the concluding ‘Dance of Homage’ to the visiting sovereign.
The poor reception for the opera meant it was soon ostracized. It sat virtually unheard for a decade, when it had the misfortune to be revived for a concert performance at the Festival Hall, for Britten’s 50th Birthday, the same night in 1963 that news of J. F. Kennedy’s assassination broke. By then, Britten was now an entirely ‘establishment’ figure, something Peter Pears observed was rather remarkable: ‘we are after all queer & left & conshies which is enough to put us, or make us put ourselves, outside the pale, apart from being artists as well’. One can imagine what Auden would have thought.
The Queen would go on to open the new Snape Maltings Concert Hall at the beginning of the 20th Aldeburgh Festival in 1967, coincidentally, the same year that the Sexual Offences Act came into being, decriminalising homosexuality.