Suzanne DuPlantis wrote the following blog posts in the days leading to the Benjamin Britten concert in November 2013.
Lyric Fest prepares for BENJAMIN BRITTEN ~ Biography in Music
Posted on November 9, 2013 by Suzanne
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
(excerpt from W. H. Auden’s Hymn to St. Cecilia)
Almost exactly one hundred years ago, give or take a week or two, Benjamin Britten was born in the seaside town of Lowestoft, in Suffolk. It was November 22, 1913 — the Feast Day of St. Cecilia, in fact. Was the beloved Patron Saint of Music smiling down, I wonder, present to entrust him with the torch, pouring down into his soul all the notes he would ever need?
Like immortal fire, those notes began organizing themselves into starter compositions even within a few short years from his birth. Britten worked at it. I love an early letter that says he left his lessons, “blinking and twitching nervously, and white with exhaustion.”
Britten went on to compose nearly every day of his life…
Thirty years later in 1942, Britten boarded the MS Axel Johnson, heading back to Great Britten from the US where he and Peter Pears had spent the last couple of years waiting out the war. (Britten had never felt easy in the States, and in time he stopped being able to compose.) The two resolved to head back to England at the height of the war. Britten packed up his unfinished manuscripts, among them, The Hymn to St. Cecilia, set to a spectacular poem he had requested of his friend, W.H. Auden.
Aboard the ship, Cecilia and the muses returned to his pen. He re-wrote and completed the Hymn to St. Cecilia and while he was at it, the entirety of The Ceremony of Carols.
For your listening pleasure, here is Britten’s homage to his patron saint… His Hymn to St. Cecilia — A lovely rendition with King’s Choir of Cambridge, and the poem up on the screen so you catch all these wonderful words.
And here is one favorite movement from one of my all-time favorite Britten pieces, The Ceremony of Carols, which we now know was written aboard the MS Axel Johnson. The movement is This Little Babe. I love this version. It’s fast, it’s non-traditional, i.e., you will not see a lot of Anglican Choir Boys in surplices and cassocks. — Emelthée / This Little Babe / Britten
Britten and social media
Posted on November 12, 2013 by Suzanne
I have been immersing myself in all things “Britten and Pears,” lately, and for those of you who may not know what I am talking about, it is the love-of-a-lifetime partnership between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears; Ben, the shy, almost reclusive, fastidious genius composer and Peter, the extroverted and intellectual tenor.
My study has brought me to this conclusion: I have a hunch that Pears would have loved social media… in inverse proportion to Britten’s avoidance of it. Nevertheless, one can find and enjoy many YouTube clips of the two performing together. And Thank God for that! The two concertized together over a period of 30 years, beginning in 1942, when they had just returned from the US. As conscientious objectors, they traveled all over the English countryside giving concerts in the provinces.
Britten wrote “We go all over the place, under the strangest conditions – playing on awful old pianos – singing easy, but always good programs and really have the greatest success with the simplest audiences. […] It does get music really to the people, it finds out what they want and puts emphasis on the music and not the personality of the artist or their previous fame. One starts completely from scratch as it were, since more often that not, they haven’t even heard of Schubert, much less Britten or Pears!!”
Here is a lovely clip of the two performing together. I am struck with the gentle comfort of the collaboration between the two of them. The seamless interweaving of voice and piano, until the music becomes all of one cloth. The song is the understated and much loved “Oh Waly, Waly” a folk song of the British Isles that Britten loved so well.
This is a song that gets a lot of air play in music schools around the country, and from what I can gather on YouTube, around the world as well. So why not share one more: At first glance it looks like a home-made recording just another soprano performing Oh Waly, Waly, but Lo! It’s an especially lovely early taste of a the up-and-coming British soprano Ruby Hughes. Enjoy!
Posted on November 13, 2013 by Suzanne
Opening the second half of our concert will be Britten’s Fanfare from the instrumental song cycle Les Illuminations (1939-40) set to poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. It’s a brilliant work. He opens the cycle with a Fanfare and one line of poetry:
I alone hold the key to this wild parade.
And a thrilling fanfare it is! Which brings me to the subject of today’s blog… what I’ll call the very unique sound-world of Benjamin Britten, or:
Same ol’ instruments, brand new purposes.
So, here is the fun thing to notice about this fanfare: Britten used strings to sound like brass. He grew up in England remember, land of trumpet fanfares and voluntaries. (Think: Clark’s ubiquitous wedding voluntary or Handel’s Music for the Coronation of King George. And we haven’t even talked about Purcell, a favorite of Britten’s.)
Well, Britten loved tradition. So what does he do? He keeps the fanfare and loses the trumpets. Give a listen. This clip is a bit unusual, it’s a staged version of the cycle with silent movie footage behind it. It was not intended to be staged, but something tells me Britten would have liked this.
Interested in some more interesting Britten sounds? Check this one out which will also be featured on the concert. It is from an early work called Our Hunting Fathers (1936). Britten was against hunting from a young age. (In fact he wrote an essay on that topic when he was in grammar school and got expelled for it.) Our Hunting Fathers was ostensibly about the horrors of fox-hunting, but had political overtones as well, so this was a two-fer for Britten, anti-hunting pacifist that he was.
Stay tuned for more exciting sounds from Ben.
Posted on November 14, 2013 by Suzanne
Now seems as good a time as any to talk about Britten’s early friendship with W.H. Auden, the brilliant, extroverted and opinionated poet whose works Britten would set countless times. Huge influence! Compared to Auden, Ben was so shy, retiring and un self-aware, that Auden and his friends viewed him as “a project as much as a friend.” Here is a great photo to illustrate the point…
Auden introduced Ben to lots of literature and poetry and while he was at it, a great deal of anti-establishment, leftist thinking. In a way it was an easy fit, Britten being a pacifist and all. But on the other hand, Britten rather liked proper things, tea and crumpets, fastidious manners, etc… It was a friendship doomed to fail. Nevertheless, it was Auden who introduced Britten to the important idea of Parable Art, that which teaches and enlightens humanity (as opposed to Decorative Arts which merely amuses and entertains.) Interesting and not too surprising fact: this idea took hold in Britten and directly influenced the kind of music he wrote… but Auden? He abandoned it entirely.
But I am getting ahead of myself — for now they are friends, ex-pats living together in NYC. The war is raging in Europe and they are conflicted, well, Britten is, to be sitting out all the suffering.
Here is just the thing to bring you back to the time and place. Auden’s poem “September 1st, 1939”.
Just imagine the time!! They were living in a shared house in Brooklyn. (Britten thought it was a circus.) He had lots of roommates including Auden, Isherwood, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee and the house was frequented by Salvador Dali and Carson McCullers, who could always be found nursing her gin in the corner of the living room while working on her novels. Britten once came downstairs to find someone playing the piano, stark naked.
So much for tea and crumpets.
Next time: Pears and the Early Years
Britten and Pears Concertizing
Posted on November 19, 2013 by Suzanne
No question, Benjamin Britten’s music would have gone in a very different direction were it not for his relationship with Peter Pears. Pears’s voice, temperament, approach to text and complete artistry embodied all that was inspiring to Britten. They performed together constantly while serving the government during the war with their artistic work.
In an earlier blog we heard Britten comment: “We go all over the place, under the strangest conditions – playing on awful old pianos – singing easy, but always good programs and really have the greatest success with the simplest audiences. It does get music really to the people, it finds out what they want and puts emphasis on the music and not the personality of the artist or their previous fame. One starts completely from scratch as it were, they haven’t even heard of Schubert, much less Britten or Pears!!”
This was just the kind of arena Britten loved!
Years later they were still concertizing, playing and singing good programs, including a lot of music that Britten wrote for Pears. Here is a YouTube clip from their tour to Japan. Pears is singing the Love Sonnets of the Michelangelo that Britten wrote for Peter as an early declaration of love.
Observe the difference in temperament between the two. Pears is triumphant and full-faced, grand before the camera. Britten is there too… Do try to catch a glimpse of him when the camera occasionally pans, and when he is not turned away. If you but listen to 30 seconds of this wonderful clip (tho’ I do hope you have time for more) it will be enough to completely enjoy the next one!
How famous does one have to be, to be spoofed? However famous it was, Britten and Pears were that famous. So, enough serious stuff — Time to laugh! Dudley Moore does Britten (and Pears all at the same time.) Enjoy!
The Honour of your Presence is requested by Lord Benjamin Britten
Posted on November 20, 2013 by Suzanne
Britten wrote the following to his friend, Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. The “Magic” he is talking about is what the real purpose of music is. (Think: If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?)
“The magic comes only with the turning of the written note into sound, and it comes most intensely when the listener is one with the composer; in active sympathy. Simply to read a score in one’s armchair is not enough for evoking this quality. Indeed, this magic is the music which is NOT in the score… For a musical experience needs three human beings at least; a composer, a performer and a listener. Unless these three take part together, there is no musical experience.”
I love the “active sympathy” part. That’s you and me.
And with this, we come to one of my absolute favorite things about BB. He wanted to reach you, the listeners. I just love the story of how one day he was composing at Snape, the art center he built on the broody Suffolk coast. A grounds keeper wandered in and Britten made the worker come, sit down and listen to what he was working on. He wanted to know if it reached him, if he got it and what he thought.
I find this so interesting, and in its way, touching, because here is the ironic thing. If you know Britten’s music, you know that some of his works, OK, half of his works, are not easy on the ear. Though all his music and text setting bears his unmistakable thumbprint, sometimes the listener has to make a leap to go there with him.
Some Music to Illustrate the Point:
Here is “The Children” from the Cycle of 1969, Who are these Children? The song is about air raids and the resulting child casualties. Can we expect another sound world for this subject? I am reminded of my theory professor, composer Sylvia Pengilly, who composed very austere computer music in the 80’s. She said, “I grew up in London during the 2nd World War with bombs bursting over my head. You expect me to write beautiful music that sounds like Mozart?” — Well, if you put it that way…And like Sylvia Pengilly, Britten grew up with the bombs of another world war bursting over his head.
But just as characteristic of Britten were these fluid, exuberant folk song settings, gentle and easy to take in, like this one featured on our concert: Bonny at Morn. (This is a very late setting, written the year he died! A poignant footnote to this setting is that when Britten wrote it, he was too to perform on piano anymore, he set this set of songs, written for Peter, for voice and harp. It is believed that he stopped writing works for Peter Pears to sing accompanied by piano, because he could not endure someone else playing for Peter.)
So, I’ll leave you with a passing thought. If someone were to tell your life story with music, I am guessing there would be some things easy to hear, and some…not so much. So, it is interesting to me anyway, how some composers have left us with a sound track of their days… If you look at it a certain way, they have left us with their “Biography in Music”.
CONCERT TODAY includes Britten Sing-a-long
Posted on November 24, 2013 by Suzanne
In 1950 Britten founded the Aldeburgh Music Club. The AMC gathered local music lovers together to his home in the Snape, professional musicians and amateurs alike.
I could have been in this club! Chances are, you could have as well, had we been living there in Suffolk, England in 1950.
As I said, Britten invited locals into his home for music-talk, house concerts, read-throughs of great choral works and even read-throughs of things that Britten has written. (Here is a little film about Aldeburgh and Britten’s relationship to it.)
Britten loved this informal gathering of souls and the sense of community it built. It was very Lyric Festian in spirit, actually. Like us, Britten felt it connected him to his community and to his roots.
In an excerpt of a speech given in Aspen in 1964, he said:
I first came to the United States at a time when I was discouraged as a young composer – muddled, fed-up and looking for work, longing to be used. I was most generously treated, by old and new friends. I shall never forget it. …But suddenly I realized where I belonged and what I lacked. I had become without roots.
I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships. …I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to enhance their lives. I do not write for posterity – I write music now, for people living here and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it.
* * *
This brings us to today. Our concert Biography in Music, Benjamin Britten (click Britten program for Web in a PDF file) is a theater-happening, a curious and enchanting mix of of music and drama, created to please you and enhance your life. It will transport you back to another time and bring Britten and his music here into the “now.”
But there is one more thing. You see, mid-career, Britten started composing music that required the audience to participate in the performance. Today, your voice will be needed to complete the music that Britten scored.
And so, bring your hearts and your voices to 1920 Spruce Street (AVA) and join us for the remarkable experience of being immersed in the world, words and music of Benjamin Britten.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the truly stunning singing that you will hear from our artists, William Ferguson, Kelly Ann Bixby and Jarrett Ott, or the incomparable accompanying of Laura Ward, and spell-binding readings of actor, Jim Bergwall, in the letters of Benjamin Britten. These players create an alchemy beautiful and poignant, and not to be missed.
Come! You will thank me for getting you there…