Beyond Britten

Article excerpt

Guest editorial

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after Benjamin Britten's death, on 4 December 1976, his place in musical life seems secure: his operas remain the principal post-Strauss/ Puccini/Janacek repertory pieces, world-wide, while many other vocal and instrumental works are regularly played, recorded - and discussed by musicologists. Cynics will claim that Britten's survival has more to do with clever promotion by a mafia comprising Boosey & Hawkes, Faber Music, the Britten-Pears Foundation, the Britten Estate, and Aldeburgh Productions, than with inherent musical worth. But that jaundiced view fails to acknowledge the strong feelings and subtle tensions that pervade Britten's work: it also discounts the extent to which the lively pluralism of the contemporary music scene since the mid-1970s has worked to Britten's advantage in the way a more monolithic evolutionary process might not have done.

In his Guest Editorial for Autumn 2001 Ivan Hewett argued as follows: 'surely music is as much to do with the expression of rootedness in a certain place, and the assertion of belonging to a community' as with aspirations to dissolve all difference in a 'universal language'? Hewett's mention of Debussy, in 'Pagodes', translating a 'perception of something unutterably alien into something completely personal and thoroughly Western' inevitably brings Britten's use of orientalisms to mind, and the vexed question of the connection between national and international in his compositions. But an even more crucial determinant of his music's continuing appeal and value is the profound conflict it enshrines between engagement and alienation, as psychological, social forces which have direct equivalents in his compositional practice.

In the speech he made on accepting the first Aspen Award in July 1964, given to honour 'the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities', Britten came up with some appropriately humanistic declarations. 'I certainly write music for human beings [... ] I also take note of the human circumstances of music, of its environment and conventions'. It was, he proclaimed, 'the composer's duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings'. He nevertheless acknowledged that 'finding one's place in society as a composer is not a straightforward job': and his fervent hymn to rootedness - 'I belong at home - there - in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it' - understandably says nothing about the nature of the personal relationships that mattered most to him, and gave no hint that feelings of alienation and guilt might underpin the homilies about belonging and social responsibility. The Aspen song of praise to local sweetness and light was very far from the whole story. ORE than twenty years before the Aspen speech, in a 1941 article for the American journal Modern Music

called 'England and the folk-art problem', Britten offered a rather different perspective. 'Since the Roman Empire, all culture, folk or sophisticated, has been under international influence', and it follows that attempting to base national styles on national folk-music is 'bound to have a weakening effect'. Writing in America, and with an assurance that betrays the help (admitted in a letter) of both WH Auden and Peter Pears, Britten praises those English composers, including Maconchy, Berkeley, Lutyens and Rawsthorne, who 'are avoiding the pitfalls that some of their musical fathers and uncles have dug for them': and he ends - after quoting an Auden poem - with the sonorous assertion that 'it is only those who accept their loneliness and refuse all the refuges, whether of tribal nationalism or airtight intellectual systems, who will carry on the human heritage'. …