Friday, November 22, 2013

Britten Centennial

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten, who was born on St. Cecilia’s Day. This month’s Gramophone magazine has Britten on the cover. The Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society featured an article on Britten this fall, and other magazines like the New York Review of Books have done retrospectives.

The first recording of his music that I purchased (at the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, CT) was Rejoice in the Lamb (an LP with a bright yellow cover), which I’d heard at a Yale concert that year. A year or so later, when I served small churches in southern Illinois, I found Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in a used record store. It’s trite to say, but the opera was overwhelming.

Over the next few years, I collected Britten’s other operas, all London-label LPs: The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, Bill Budd, The Turn of the Screw, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Owen Wingrave, and Death in Venice, plus the famous War Requiem. All featured Britten’s partner Peter pears, and all but Death in Venice were conducted by Britten. He never conducted his opera Gloriana, a critical failure at its premiere, but it has been recorded in subsequent years (I own a DVD with the English Northern Sinfonia).

I’ve enjoyed other Britten recordings: Sinfonia da Requiem, Ceremony of Carols, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Hymn to St. Cecilia, and others. In Arizonia, our church’s choir did a wonderful Ceremony of Carols one year. A Webster University chorus performed the Cantata Misericordium this past spring.  

In another post, I wrote some thoughts about Peter Grimes. I was driving a certain distance when the Met Opera channel on my Sirius XM radio featured the piece. It’s pleasant when I’m driving to listen to an opera in its entirety, something I seldom take the time to do at home. Somehow this time the elemental qualities of the music stood out, perhaps because I was driving through scenery (though not seaside scenery) that I love. The sea seems to be “going on” throughout the story, as of course it would be in a coastal village.

Musicologist Christopher Palmer comments that Grimes’ journey---born by the sea and then claimed by it---was probably reflective of Britten’s own unconscious feelings, since Britten himself resolved to live beside the sea, and began and ended his career with operas (Grimes and Death in Venice) in which disappearing into the sea was a kind of redemption.(1) The sea figures strongly in Peter Grimes, Death in Venice and Billy Budd, as a “symbol of the nothingness which is everythingness... that simultaneous longing for the sense’ fulfillment and their extinction,” comments Palmer, drawing parallels between Britten and Wagner in this regard.(2).

“[B]eing submerged and swept away by a torrent of water is an image also of rebirth; if Peter is to be redeemed he has to return... to the unconscious waters, whence---well, who knows? Man is nothing, nature alone endures; perhaps in the last analysis, the truest lesson Grimes has to teach us is that of the vanity of all human endeavor. Grimes is a quintessentially Hardyesque work. As Peter Garvie puts it, ‘The passing bell is tugged by human hands to signify the end of human time for each of us; but the bell-buoy sounds forever to the movement of the tides.’”(3)

Inside the book from which I read these essays, I've tucked a postcard from Sir Peter Pears, Britten's partner who created so many of Britten's operatic roles. I had written Pears an appreciative letter in 1985, to which he responded with a sweet thank-you note, presumably from the seaside house he and Britten (who died in 1976) had shared. Pears commented that his health was failing (he died a year later) and had had to cancel a planned visit to the U.S.

1.  Christopher Palmer, Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” Palmer, ed., The Britten Companion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 118-119.

2.  Palmer, “Towards a Genealogy of Death in Venice,” ibid., 255.

3.  Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” ibid., 119.

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