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Benjamin Britten

Author(s): Colin Mason

Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 89, No. 1261 (Mar., 1948), pp. 73-75
Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.
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Accessed: 24-02-2018 15:09 UTC

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MARCH 1948

Page Page
Benjamin Britten. By Colin Mason ... ... .. ... 73 The Amateurs' Exchange ... ... ... ... ... ... 88
The Musician's Bookshelf ... ... ... ... ... ... 75 London Concerts ... ... ... ... ... ... 89
Gramophone Notes. By W. McNaught ... ... ... 79 The State as Music Critic ... ... ... ... ... ... 91
Round about Radio. By W. R. Anderson ... ... ... 83 The Operatic Repertory in Italy. By Harry Beard ... ... 92
New Music . ... ... ... ... ... ... 85 Obituary ... ............... ... ... 93
Church and Organ Music: Miscellaneous ...... ... . ... 94
Royal College of Organists ... ... ... ... .. 86
Miscellaneous ... ... ... ... 87 MUSIC
Recitals ... ... ... ... ... 88 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace.' By Reginald Redman.

Benjamin Britten
BRITTEN was born a year before the first sonal, abstract and formal again as it has never
World War, and came to adult life in the been since Beethoven. It is not an original
early thirties. He had then studied under
opinion, for Stravinsky has held it for nearly forty
various teachers, the most important being years and many younger composers, including
Frank Bridge and John Ireland, and entered Hindemith, have partly or fully endorsed it in
professionally into a world of composition that their music. But it may be considered original
was still rather chaotic, but was gradually settling for two combined reasons. First, that among the
down into certain well-defined movements. The composers who have applied the theory to their
period of revolutionary destruction was more music
or most consistently Stravinsky seems to be
less over, and various plans for reconstruction, the only one who has arrived at this conclusion
some of which had been found inadequate, had after serious thought rather than accepted it from
been tried. The musical world was in much the someone else, as some others appear to have done
same state as the economic world is in now, and from him. Second, that although he is convinced
though nobody was quite sure what would hap- of the truth of his idea, as his imitators are ob-
pen, the blind alleys had at least been marked. viously not, in his music he has failed as com-
To find out what opinions Britten held about pletely as his imitators to convince the world
the future of music at that time is probably that he is right. Not that originality gives the
impossible. Even he is unlikely to have any opinion any more value. Stravinsky, even with
accurate recollection of them, and we can only the extra weight of originality to help him, failed
deduce them very roughly from his music. For to convince, because his application was wrong.*
reasons which will become obvious, I propose not Britten, lacking his absolute originality, may con-
to try to do this, but to consider his present vince because he has not just accepted his
opinions, which are of far more interest. opinion, but has concluded from his own reason-
The first and most startling thing to be observed ing that Stravinsky is right in principle, and is
is that he holds exactly the same opinion about applying the same principle in quite a different
the general function and purpose of modern way from his.
music, and the responsibilities of the modern This one opinion Britten and Tippett share,
composer, as his most important under-forty-five but beyond it they diverge widely. For an
colleague, Michael Tippett. This coincidence, analysis of Tippett's musical character the reader
considered absolutely, is not at all surprising; is referred to the Musical Times of May 1946.
but considered with reference to their music it is
Britten's is now discussed below. He is perhaps
very much so, for no two English composers'
the most eclectic of all composers in his music
outputs differ so much as theirs. Tippett is theand in his tastes. His admiration for Stravinsky
least prolific composer, and his music the most is very great, for Tippett equally so, though I
contrapuntal, the least harmonic in outlook andimagine, perhaps wrongly, that he respects
the most consistently vital; Britten is the mostStravinsky the eclectic idealist more than he likes
prolific, his music the least contrapuntal, and the
the composer. His attitude to Berg and Bartok
most harmonic in outlook, and the least consis- is a little surprising. Berg is the modern com-
tently vital. They represent the directly oppo- poser to whom he feels most attracted, Bart6k
site schools of progressive musical thought inthe least, because he considers Berg the most
England. forward-looking, Bart6k the most romantic and
The opinion that they share is that if modern
music is to survive its own moment and imme- * The author thinks it advisable to point out that he excludes from
this generalization Stravinsky's recent works, which he has not yet
diate circle it must become comparatively imper- heard or seen.

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74 THE MUS. IC. AL TIMES March 1948

backward-looking of modern composers. This materials in string orchest

judgment is very plausible, but I think it is not few older but not mature touches.
quite true. The misconception on which I feel When we look at the real opuses, one fact
it is based has influenced Britten's own abstract
stands out above all, which is that Britten pro-
music considerably, and further attentionduced will be
no really important instrumental work up
given to it in the actual discussion of his music.
to and including the Scottish Ballad opus 26,
What about his tastes outside the twentieth that is to say before he was about thirty. First
there are the dry Sinfonietta and Phantasy
century ? Unlike Tippett, although he considers
the nineteenth century a period of decadence, Quartet,heneither very inventive nor absolutely
is not intolerant of or indifferent to its music. uninventive but without much interest now.
The men of his choice are Schubert and Mahler Then the Simple Symphony, already spoken of,
as symphonists and song writers, Verdi as an and the Suites, opus 5 and 6, for piano and violin
opera composer. He has nothing to say of the respectively, two works with hardly a bar of warm
' great' composers, not surprisingly, although his music in them. Opus 9 is Soir6es Musicales, a
omission of the brilliantly facile and eclectic merely entertaining orchestral diversion based on
Tchaikovsky is a little puzzling. Before Beet- Rossini, opus 10 a set of variations on a Theme
hoven, he is at home almost everywhere in a of Frank Bridge, also entertaining, occasionally
formal world, and no particular importance need amusing, brilliantly scored and ambitious to the
be given to his preference for Mozart and Purcell. point of fugality, but without soul. The Piano
and Violin Concertos, opus 13 and 15, are as arid
From these things we can begin to see a little
as the suites, and being more extended are conse-
of the man behind Britten's music; to clarify the
quently more distressing, in spite of their greater
picture more, I set out below a few of his own
pronouncements, public and private, that may ingenuity. The Piano Concerto has recently
been revised, but its first movement remains the
prove illuminating. He considers that a young only one of even moderate interest.
composer should be prepared to write any kind
of music, except bad music; that folk music is a
The next group, opus 19, 20 and 21 are the
bad basis for art music, though it may be instruc- Kermesse Canadienne, Sinfonia da Requiem and
the Diversions for piano and orchestra. The
tive for a composer to harmonize it occasionally;
two shorter works are unpretentious, the one a
that the modern artist is almost compelled to
view his art morally and socially; that success or
kind of Carnaval Romain, only less vivid and
certainly less musical, the other a purely technical
failure may affect a composer but should not
seriously do so; that he himself is not primarily work for the one-handed pianist Paul Wittgen-
stein. It is hardly more than a set of accompanied
an operatic composer as some of both his enemies
and advocates have held; that Puccini is an studies for the left hand, arising out of a theme
atrocious composer, whom it is as sacrilegious itself
to of little value. The Sinfonia is naturally
more pretentious, but there is little else to be said
speak of with Verdi as it is to speak of Bruckner
for it. It is less entertaining than usual, because
with Mahler; lastly, he states that he is most
its object is not principally to entertain but to
definitely a Christian, which is nothing strictly
express symphonically, and it fails because it is
to do with music, but has enough bearing on
Britten's art to be mentioned here. neither picturesquely nor formally symphonic.
Its intellectual predecessors are to be found in
So much for the man and musician, for the
Liszt and Berlioz, not the strongest of symphon-
time being. When one considers the general ists, even judged by their own standards. And
characteristics of the music itself, some curious
they enjoyed an idiom more suitable for such
disparities between theory and execution becomemusic than Britten does. The final group of
evident. To compare these general characteris- Britten's 'first period' instrumental works con-
tics of the music with Britten's theories, it is first sists of Matin6es Musicales, a successor of the
necessary to consider his works individually, and Soirees, the three two-piano pieces, one of them
to generalize from them. Luckily there is no need with orchestra, and the String Quartet no. 1.
for the critic to describe every one of his forty The two-piano compositions are all full of nice
opuses in detail, nor indeed to spend long on any sounds and enchantingly written for pianists, but
one before opus 27, which dates from his thirtieth are rather empty otherwise. The quartet simi-
year. Composition is a far more complicated larly has many momentarily interesting new
business now than it was in Schubert's day, and sounds and ideas but nowhere gives a convincing
it is not surprising that the proportion of valuable exhibition of genuine symphonic procedure, or
works from Britten's twenties is no larger than formal strength.
that from, say, Schubert's teens. But it may be This quartet marks the end of a period in
instructive to glance at them quickly. Britten's creative career; after it he wrote a
He began at school with ambitious works. series of vocal works culminating in the two
The score of his Simple Symphony, opus 4, of operas. He has written some orchestral works
1934 is prefaced with a note that it is based on since, which will be examined later; but first it is
material from works written by him between his important to consider his vocal works from the
ninth and twelfth years. If the footnotes about beginning. In them there is more reward for the
the themes are to be believed, by 1926 he had searcher. His first published vocal work was
written at least three piano suites, and nine 'A Boy was Born', in the form of a set of
sonatas, and he spoke in a broadcast, reprinted variations on the single literary, musical and
in the Listener, of writing symphony after religious theme. The theme is very simple, a
symphony. Nothing has been preserved except succession of wholesome discords on which no
the Simple Symphony, which dresses the juvenileacademic professor could frown. This brilliant

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cycle is is
in many
in many
respects later as of
as good asasitsgood Britten's
its later finest works so far. Mr. Hubert
counterpart for boys' voices, 'A Ceremony of Foss has rightly drawn attention to the thin
Carols ', and already shows Britten's characteris- veneer of sound, but music is primarily sound,
tically unorthodox treatment of words, with and if that is, as he calls it, 'splendid ', what
surprising accents and breath-takingly rapid more should one ask from a song ? It demands
articulation. Even in this early work the devices no symphonic method, or thematic development
are convincing and inevitable-seeming, when once on a large scale; only the enchanting moments of
one accepts them as legitimate. sound Britten provides. If its climaxes satisfy
Later came ' Our Hunting Fathers', the first aurally but not in the score, better burn the
of a fine trio of song cycles for solo voice and score; but I think if we did so we might burn
orchestra. This cycle is rather neglected, for many a Schubert song that we would gladly hear
reasons difficult to discover, because it is one of again. ' Les Illuminations 'strikes me as a great
his best early works, and genuinely lives up to its song-cycle. It does not try to repeat 'Winter-
description as symphonic. Its faults are very reise' or ' Dichterliebe', but it is effective and
few, for it is a really orchestral work, in which beautiful, and tightly held together partly by its
the soloist, though the chief, is not the only literary basis, and partly by pseudo-symphonic
literary and musical contributor. Though the methods that are exactly right for it.
text as a whole appears to be without meaning, The last vocal work of the first period is another
this has never been a hindrance to the success of
song cycle, the ' Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo '.
a good work yet, and indeed many people prefer This is not to be considered as one of the sym-
to hear singing in a language they do not under- phonic cycles, because each song is absolutely
stand. And the difficulties of execution, and the self-contained, and has no thematic connection
amount of musicianship required of the singer,with any other, and moreover the accompani-
are not greater than usual for Britten. From ment is for piano only. In the general design of
the purely musical point of view it is as exciting this work, Britten approaches very nearly to the
as ' Les Illuminations ' and offers many interest- nineteenth-century song-cycle about the poet's
ing and enjoyable foretastes of the best moments love, and the similarity is enhanced by the spon-
of his later works. The opening recitative bears taneity of the melody and the real lyrical warmth
the same stamp as similar passages in ' The Rape of the songs, which is of a very different kind
of Lucretia'; and 'Rats Away' is an obvious from that of ' Les Illuminations '. But the music
predecessor of Tarquin's Ride, or of ' Ce sont des is equally characteristic of the best Britten, and
villes ' in ' Les Illuminations '. ' Messalina ' is
there is not a mistake anywhere, in any individual
as exquisite in its complex simplicity as the Dirge
song, or in its placing in relation to the others.
from the Serenade, and the ' Dance of Death ' is Even the least admirable, Sonnet XXX, is a fine
a very effective movement, much better musically song, and between the others there is nothing to
and even dynamically than its later equivalent in choose, in spite of their wide range of musical
the Sinfonia da Requiem. In fact the complete style and poetic sentiment.
work is certainly worth revival, and should be
placed beside Britten's two later cycles as one These sonnets are opus 22, and belong to 1940.
of his finest works. They were followed by the last group of instru-
Between this and the second big symphonic mental works discussed, ending with the' Scottish
cycles come two lesser ones. First, ' On This Ballad', and first String Quartet, which to me
Island ', for solo voice and piano, not a bad workseem to mark the end of a first period in Britten's
but a rather uncharacteristic one without any of career as an adult composer. It is easy to see
from this account that in this period Britten
Britten's sparkling originality, and sometimes
even too much conventionality of idiom and seems to be essentially a composer of short works,
or sectional long ones, for voices, solo or choral, and
device. Second, a ' Ballad of Heroes ' for chorus
and orchestra, equally conventional, and on the to have achieved nothing in his purely instrumen-
whole a rather inferior piece d'occasion, of whichtal music, especially that of symphonic ambition,
one would almost imagine from its words and itsthat can compare with that of his internationally
musical material that it was written ' down ' for less famous contemporaries in England, Walton,
popular consumption. But ' Les Illuminations Rubbra,
', Tippett, Rawsthorne and Berkeley.
which follows them, is the compensation, and one (To be continued)

The Musician's Bookshelf

Herbage Mr.
Mr. Herbage's
writing is is
as as
as itasisit is
[Max Parrish
Parrish&&Co., Co.,
6s.] knowledgeable. But books are presented to the
This, the
firstofofa anew
of of
books, Musical Times for holes to be picked therein.
producedin inHolland,
Holland, comes
comesto to
Handel Let us then try to play Beckmesser. The
shelf in
companywithwith the
monograph by Bairstow reader's grievance is that Mr. Herbage has stopped
by Bairstow
(1928, O.U.P.)
andthethe booklet
bookletby by
WatkinsShaw short just when we were counting upon being
(1946, Hinrichsen).
concep-engrossed. It was natural that the first forty
tion, excellent the choice of an author-Mr. pages should cover familiar ground and tell the
Herbage has himself edited 'Messiah'-and classic anecdotes. At the end of a chapter
that of the pictures (seven in colour, thirty-four called ' As Handel wrote it ' Mr. Herbage says of
in black and white). And a modest, pre-inflation 'Messiah' that it is 'the only musical master-
price is asked for this pretty book. piece which is regularly performed today as its

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