Magazine article Gramophone

Benjamin Britten Studies

Magazine article Gramophone

Benjamin Britten Studies

Article excerpt

Benjamin Britten Studies

Essays on an Inexplicit Art

Aldeburgh Studies in Music, Vol 12

Edited by Vicki P Stroeher and Justin Vickers

The Boydell Press, HB, 554pp, 60 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-783-27195-5

Do we need another book on Benjamin Britten? I Aficionados of the composer will feel the question to be entirely unnecessary, yet others observing the growth of Britten literature from the sidelines will continue to be amazed at the extraordinary proliferation of writing on the man and his music in recent years, which peaked around the celebrations of his centenary in 2013. Indeed, several of the essays in Benjamin Britten Studies originated as papers given at two conferences mounted to mark Britten's 100th birthday, one held at the University of Nottingham and the other at Illinois State University. The book's editors co-organised the latter event and have here deftly assembled a wide-ranging symposium which encourages a resounding 'yes' in answer to the initial question.

What promised to distinguish this book from its predecessors is its international flavour, and its remit (as the cover blurb states) to 'take off the "protective arm" around Britten'. Both editors are American, and the book is--rather bizarrely, given that its publisher is based just a few miles from Britten's Suffolk home--written throughout in American English. There is a notable emphasis on Britten's American sojourn in 1939-42, the book beginning with a section largely devoted to this 'exile' which (unwittingly?) gives the impression that the composer's career only really took off as a consequence of his temporary emigration. Two of the book's 16 chapters are devoted to the ill-fated American operetta Paul Bunyan (1941; revised in 1976), as part of a disappointingly unbalanced coverage of Britten's musico dramatic output in which Gloriana and Death in Venice, along with two of the church parables, are the only operas receiving sustained critical consideration. Discussion of the technicalities of Britten's music occupies a relatively small part of the book, too, in spite of its subtitle promising an examination of his 'inexplicit art' (a phrase he himself coined to describe music in general). There is one outstanding analytical contribution, nonetheless: a brilliantly insightful essay on Britten's manipulation of rhythm and tempo by Philip Rupprecht.

The perceived need to remove the 'protective arm' concerns the commonly held view that, following his death, Britten's reputation was 'carefully curated' (as the editors put it) by an old-guard coterie of associates whose admiration for him bordered on hagiography. While on the whole this may be true, the book does not in fact develop this particular agenda forcefully, being content for the most part to present details of the man and his milieu in a refreshingly unpartisan way. …

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