“..the greatest 20th century opera composer” – Derek Parker, June 2013
In the brouhaha about the bicentenaries of two great nineteenth century opera composers, everyone seems so far to be underplaying the centenary of the greatest twentieth century opera composer, born fortuitously on St Cecilia’s Day in 1913.
From the very beginning of his career, Benjamin Britten wrote music which was a great deal too accessible for its own good – and a very great deal too ‘clever’. From the beginning British critics, in particular, stuck in the groove of believing that music more approachable and melodious than that provided by the twelve-tone boys and their followers was barely worth serious consideration, sneered at his work for its ‘cleverness’ and ‘facility.’
It was his mother who first encouraged his love of music, both at the piano (he was to become a truly great pianist) and in composition – some of his earliest melodies turn up in the popular Simple Symphony. Privately tutored by Frank Bridge, publicly at the Royal College of Music (where, already, he could have taught his professors much) he thought of studying with Alban Berg, but the R.C.M. Director pronounced the composer of Wozzeck ‘not a good influence’. It may have been fortunate advice.
Britten took his own first step towards opera in 1933, with A Boy was Born, a set of choral variations. But during the following decade he consolidated his reputation with such works as his Variations on the Theme of Frank Bridge and piano and violin concerti, all of which you might call Britten for people who don’t like Britten (far too accessible for the critics).
A characteristic voice strengthened, especially in works written under the influence of his friend W. H. Auden, the greatest poet of his generation, though their actual collaborations were relatively few, and not altogether successful (Paul Bunyan, a ‘musical’ aimed at Broadway, never really worked). Another collaboration which began in the thirties however was the most significant of Britten’s life – that with the tenor Peter Pears, who became his lover (he died in Pears’ arms) and partner both in life and in music.
A lifelong pacifist, he was appalled by the outbreak of war – it is not difficult to hear a prophesy of disaster in the racked finale to his Sinfonia da Requiem – returning to England from America to face some fierce criticism for his unpopular views (shared, incidentally, by his friend and colleague the composer Michael Tippett; in a famous encounter, when Britten and Pears gave a recital at Wormwood Scrubs, the prison where Tippett was serving a sentence as a conscientious objector, the latter was allowed to turn over the music for his friend at the piano).
Britten had returned with the idea for his first opera, Peter Grimes. It had a difficult birth – the chorus and orchestra at Sadler’s Wells theatre at one point went on strike: they simply could not understand the music. The public, however, did – the opera was a triumph. The sixteen operas which followed were almost all popular successes, however tetchy the critics were about them. Even his setting of Henry James’ short story The Turn of the Screw, which both in subject and score cannot be described as easy, was cheered on its first night and almost immediately became part of the international operatic repertoire.
The War Requiem provided the greatest popular success of his life. Commissioned for the dedication of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt after its demolition by Nazi bombers, it has become a truly iconic work, denouncing the barbarism of war on the one hand and (this is often misunderstood or ignored) the futility of the Church’s reaction to war on the other.
Britten’s music is often extremely lovable. The works he wrote for children are specially so – Let’s Make an Opera, Noye’s Fludde, The Golden Vanity, and of course the theme and variations which make up The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the end of which – like the end of the sadly neglected Spring Symphony – lifts the heart so joyfully. The operas, too, often offer sheer joy – the delicious music of A Midsummer Night’s Dream brings tears to the driest of eyes, while Albert Herring (shortly to be revived at Sydney Opera House) is full of humour from beginning to end (and incidentally anyone who thinks Britten can’t write love music should lend an ear to Sid and Nancy, serenading each other in that opera).
Britten’s range, with not only opera but song cycles, chamber and choral music, the War Requiem, the huge ballet Prince of the Pagodas, is much greater than that of either Verdi or Wagner. To his last opera, the extraordinary Death in Venice, he added a coda: his third string quartet, which he heard played once, in private, before his death. Its simplicity and tranquility make it one of the most moving farewells any composer has made to the world. – Derek Parker