Ebbing Away

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Ebbing Away


Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times


Ebbing away Britten: essays, letters and opera guides Hans Keller Plumbago Books (London, 2013); xxiii, 381pp; £45, $70/ £16.99, $26.95. isbn 978 o 956600 74 5 / 978 o 95660 075 2.

From the auspicious evening in 1945 when he attended Sadlers Wells expecting to hear Cost fan tutte, found that Peter Grimes was being performed instead, and also found that he could 'understand' it, Hans Keller - then 26 - consistently placed Britten alongside Mozart at the top of his musical Premier League. By 1952 Keller was able to declare that 'as one who is soaked in the music of both Mozart and Britten I may be allowed to claim that for the first time Mozart, the universal musician who masters everything with a somnambulistic surefootedness and grace, has found a companion. And personally, I regard Britten as the greatest of all living composers whose music I understand'. In a letter to Britten written in September 1959, Keller reiterated: 'you

know that pace Stravinsky, I regard you as the greatest composer alive

It remains an astonishing accolade; Britten emerged as not simply the best British composer alive - Keller had time for relatively few of his British-born or Britain-based contemporaries, even with those who shared Britten's own early propensity for what Donald Mitchell (in The language of modern music, 1963) defined as 'the urgent exploration of European models' - but as the best living composer, period. However, In Keller's view of Britten, the Mozart parallel mattered more than Britten's affinity with Mahler, Berg and Stravinsky (Ravel and Prokofiev might also be added): and while it is clear that what Britten learned from Frank Bridge, in particular, was not to imitate Bridge or any other British composer, but to explore Bridge's own 'European models' - including Bartók - Keller's fixation on the unparalleled achievement of the first Viennese school continued to underpin his convictions about Britten's musical strengths.

Secure in his own ability to rethink the virtues of Haydn and Mozart in contemporary terms without fundamentally contradicting their most essential thought-processes, Britten never followed Schoenberg into (occasional) 'atonal symphonism', as Keller called it. Nor did he wish to match Stravinsky's provocative capacity for being 'a mystery to those who understand him'. We might deduce that what made Britten greater than Stravinsky (as Keller conceived it) is that the former never 'suppressed [...] our own musical experiences with their affective values'. But as these Britten-centred writings confirm, Keller was never lured into detailed comparisons of his hero with any (lesser) contemporaries, and especially those without roots in Viennese classicism, which Keller held in idealised reverence: 'in Mozart's time, there was no unmusical music-lover; today, we even get unmusical composers'.

It is all too easy to hypothesise that Britten's twin Viennese deprivations - in the 1930s, the ban on possible studies with Alban Berg, in the 1950s the early death of his publisher and close adviser Erwin Stein - made it possible for Keller to fill the gap, but to do so as much by difference as by sympathy. It was more a matter of deep musical trust and respect than of close personal friendship. The Britten life-style, built around Aldeburgh routines, could never appeal to Keller and Cosman, and although everything points to Keller's acute understanding of Britten's psychology, he would not willingly make any allowances for the composer's weakkneed reluctance to debate or defend strongly-held opinions. …

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