Red House Blues

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Red House Blues

Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times

Red House blues Letters from a life: the selected letters of Benjamin Britten, volume five 1959-^1965 Edited by Philip Reed & Mervyn Cooke The Boydell Press (Woodbridge, 2010); I, 7Ó4pp; £45, $90. ISBN 978 1 84383 591 2.

A CENTRAL chapter of ray fantasy-history of 20th-century music tells the story of how, fired up by the instant and immense success of his War Requiem, first performed on 30 May 19Ó2, Benjamin Britten returned to the kind of large-scale operatic projects he had not engaged with since Billy Budd and Gloriana in the early 1950s. Determined to capitalise on the international stature of his preferred soloists for the Requiem, he devoted three years each to King Lear for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (premiered at Covent Garden in 1966) and to Anna Karenina for G alina Vishnevskaya, first staged in a Russian translation in Moscow in 1969, then a year later at Covent Garden, by which time Vishnevskaya was able to cope with Myfanwy Piper's original English text. Naturally enough, both operas included important roles for Peter Pears (the Fool in King Lear, Karenin in Anna Karenina), and Pears also did the lion's share of the work on establishing the libretto for Lear, as he and Britten built on the foundations of their highly effective adaptation of A midsummer night's dream.

Reality, of course, was very different. War requiem was indeed a success. But before he embarked on its composition Britten had committed himself to a collaborative music-theatre project with William Plomer that would eventually become Curlew River (1964). His creative contacts with artists from overseas after War requiem would be dominated by Mstislav Rosrropovich, not by singers: in a letter to Pears of 16 March 1965 Britten confessed that 'frankly I find other singers rather non-inspiring to write for'. Fischer-Dieskau's Lear opera was eventually provided (to a German text) by Aribert Reimann (first performed in Munich in 1978). As for Anna Karenina - an English-language operatic version with both libretto and music by Iain Hamilton was given its sole stage production by English National Opera in 1981. It was directed by Colin Graham, who might well have produced Britten's opera had it ever been composed. Mme Vishnevskaya was not involved.

A coda of sorts to this tale is provided by Alexander Goehr's Promised end, first staged in 2010. This gives a vivid sense of what a Lear opera using segments of Shakespeare 's text, but conceived with aspects of Japanese Noh drama in mind, could be like. However, Goehr's post-Schoenbergian music stands at many removes from the style of Britten's 'parables for church performance': and there is no evidence in Britten's published correspondence that he ever thought of bringing his interest in Far Eastern music to bear on Lear. That Russianisms play a role in his music for Rostropovich is another (true) story, whose oudine can be traced in this hefty volume.

This penultimate selection of Britten's correspondence covers the years of such major compositional achievements as his last pre-Maltings opera, A midsummer night's dream and its magical 'prequel', Nocturne, as well as War requiem, Cello Symphony, Curlew River and Songs and proverbs of William Blake. They were years of creative fulfilment and sustained public acclaim - as shown by the Aspen award, the Hanseatic Goethe prize, election to the Order of Merit, and being made an honorary Freeman of Aldeburgh. But the overwhelming picture is one of endless tiredness and frequent discontent, making it hard to read through these pages without acute awareness of the catastrophic toll on Britten's health that would soon be exacted.

Not every letter is a litany of self-pitying complaint. Yet it is difficult to feel that the personal satisfaction which came from the successful completion of so many important compositions was ever enough to outweigh the strains of being involved in their performance, and of trying to balance those strains against all the others that Britten as pianist, conductor and festival organiser, brought upon himself.

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