Academic journal article Current Musicology

Heather Wiebe. 2012. Britten's Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Heather Wiebe. 2012. Britten's Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction

Article excerpt

Heather Wiebe. 2012. Britten's Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Britten as a public figure. Britten as a composer of music for children, amateurs, and the church. These are sides of Britten's legacy that have attracted little scholarly attention prior to Heather Wiebe's recent monograph Britten's Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction. More familiar is Britten as a composer of opera and art song, and as a man "at odds with ... society" (Pears 1983: 152). (1) Although anticipating the Britten centenary by one year, Britten's Unquiet Pasts is much in keeping with the spirit of other Britten publications to be released this year, not least Paul Kildea's (2013) biography. What emerges from these new perspectives is a more complex view of Britten, both as an artist whose breadth of work defies easy classification, and as a man with changing and often conflicting impulses towards his envisaged role in society.

Wiebe's study also differentiates itself from much Britten scholarship in its wider historical outlook. As she states at its outset, it is less a study of Britten and his music than of the roles music played in the project of British postwar reconstruction. Britten is not even mentioned until partway through the second paragraph of the introduction, when his works appear as part of an impressive list of source materials, which include, but are by no means limited to, "planning and arts administration documents, journalism, social surveys, public ceremonial, television and radio broadcasting, film, theatre, and literature" (1). Each chapter begins with a rich contextualization of the topic under consideration, through which Wiebe demonstrates Britten's enmeshment in endeavors to rediscover, rebuild, and redefine British society after the war, particularly through invocations of the past. While the ambivalent messages of works like Gloriana and the War Requiem appear to set them apart from the project of postwar reconstruction, Wiebe demonstrates how they give voice to more widespread doubts about the ability of the past to revivify the present, or for it to be recovered at all.

From a historical point of view, Wiebe focuses on the following events: the Festival of Britain in 1951, the stated goal of which "was to demonstrate to the world the recovery of the United Kingdom from the effect of the war in moral, cultural, spiritual and material fields" (quoted on 4); the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953; and the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, plans for which began shortly after its destruction in 1940 but were only realized in 1962. For readers primarily interested in the life and works of Britten, Wiebe begins with A Ceremony of Carols (1942) and ends with the War Requiem (1962), which was commissioned for the festival celebrating the consecration of Coventry Cathedral.

Wiebe's bookends are well chosen. The year 1942 not only marked Britten's momentous decision to return to England from America but also saw a fundamental change in the composer's attitude towards the artist's role in society. Early in 1941, Britten published what Wiebe, without exaggeration, describes as "a diatribe not only against the use of folksong as a foundation of English music, but against the idea of a national English music itself" (17). Britten's skepticism about the very idea of community is such that he encased the word in scare quotes. How contrasting this is from the Britten who would later speak of the artist's duty to serve his community (e.g., Britten 1951 and 1962). A year later, the seeds of Peter Grimes--the most likely candidate for England's national opera--had been sown. The composer had come to believe that he would only achieve his full potential as an artist if he returned to his native Suffolk. And, most shockingly, on the long sea voyage back to England, he began composing A Ceremony of Carols, a gesture towards the English musical past not appreciably different from those he had previously denounced. …

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