The Church Music Society

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Benjamin Britten: Too original for his own good?

The Church Music Society Lecture 2013:
Southern Cathedral Festival, Chichester

Paul Spicer

The text is adjusted to read without hearing the musical examples played on the occasion.

I first came across Britten’s music as a chorister at New College, Oxford in the early 1960s. David Lumsden, who was then organist, was a keen advocate of Britten’s music and I still now have the vivid impression of the excitement of recording the Ceremony of Carols with the harpist Maria Korchinska together with the Missa Brevis. Most of all, I remember the heady rush of adrenalin when we sang that great triple canon movement: This little babe and the fantastic harp glissandi in the Deo Gratias at the end. I also loved That yonge child with its simple weeping figure accompaniment which was deeply impressive and which, many years later made me want to share my enthusiasm for Britten’s choral music as widely possible by recording it with the Finzi Singers and writing the practical guide to his complete choral music. A centenary is a wonderful opportunity to explore a composer’s output more completely.

Major anniversaries can be a mixed blessing, I feel, where there is a wholly artificial concentration on one composers’ output almost to the exclusion of everyone else. The Britten machine has been extraordinary this year – an unstoppable force reminding us of the unstoppable force of musical nature he really was. Where an anniversary celebration can be a good thing is in pointing out that there are many more works in a composers’ output than the ones which are trotted out day after day. When I was asked by Boosey & Hawkes to write the practical guide to all Britten’s choral music I was delighted, but I was mainly thrilled because it introduced me to a lot of scores I didn’t know, and I thought I really did know Britten’s choral output!

The title of this talk (I find titles very difficult…) is ‘Was Britten too original for his own good?’. Originality is a very subjective concept and we could have an equally good talk or perhaps discussion on what originality really is. I have just completed a big biography of Sir George Dyson who was flayed alive for not being original in his lifetime and yet the more I studied his music the more original in many of its elements I came to feel he was. How about what Britten thought of others?

Copland:
As important and vital a composer as any living.

Brahms:
It’s not bad Brahms I mind, it’s good Brahms I can’t stand (work that out if you can!)

Delius:
Perhaps the piece of music that brings tears most easily to the eyes of an expatriate Englishman is ‘On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring’. – I find that amazing from Britten.

Elgar:
I am absolutely incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes (and yet Britten went on to record Gerontius for Decca).

Ireland’s These things shall be: All that pretentious tub-thumping, puking sentimentality and really flagrant dishonesty (to say nothing of the gross incompetence of it). I think he didn’t like that work!

Purcell:
There seems to be nothing this composer cannot do.

Schubert:
It is arguable that the richest and most productive eighteen months in our musical history is the time when Beethoven had just died, when the other 19th century giants, Wagner, Verdi and Brahms had not begun; I mean the period in which Schubert wrote his Winterreise, the C major Symphony, his last three piano sonatas, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces. The standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanation.

Shostakovich:
The satire is biting & brilliant. The eminent English Renaissance composers sniggering in the stalls was typical. There is more music in a page of Macbeth than the whole of the elegant output!

Vaughan  Williams:
We will miss him sadly – above all, his wonderful, uncompromising courage in fighting for all those things he believed in.

Walton:
He is so obviously the head prefect of English music and I’m the promising new boy!

In 1959 he said ‘In those days I was very violent in my opinions, very ready to have grievances’.

I am indebted to John Bridcut’s marvellous new book Essential Britten for bringing together those and many other fascinating gobbets of tittle tattle about Britten. Do get hold of this fascinating book if you can. It’s a dip in and taste book full of great bits of useful and useless information. A real antidote to the heavy biography!

But seriously, this underlines the problem for anyone who attempts to comment on another composer’s work. Do you like it personally? Can you be objective about it? Are you violent in your opinions and ready to have grievances? Does the personality of the man get in way of a proper appreciation of his music? Do all the off-centre elements of Britten’s life get in the way – his homosexuality, his love of children, his impatience with lesser beings and his ability to be cruel to people who he could cut out of his life at a whim if they did something to annoy him or said something derogatory which got back to him? Take what happened to his librettist Eric Crozier, for instance. Britten fell out badly with Crozier in the 1950s and Crozier was deeply hurt. John Drummond, the late Controller of R3 asked Britten to be interviewed for a film about Kathleen Ferrier and Britten only agreed on condition that neither Nancy Evans, Ferrier’s closest friend, nor Evans’ husband, Crozier, appeared, a situation Drummond found preposterous. He always felt that dealing with Britten was like walking on eggshells. Crozier himself in 1966 felt that Britten had coarsened and his expression was compounded of ‘arrogance, impatience and hostility’.

But genius, or precocious talent often comes at a price and we pigeonhole people into our comfortable social norms at our peril.  I wouldn’t have liked to have been Walter Greatorex, Britten’s music master at Gresham’s of whom he wrote: ‘However the man got the job here I cannot imagine. His ideas of rhythm, logic, tone, or the music are absolutely lacking in sanity’!! And yet W H Auden, also a pupil at the school wrote of him that even Albert Schweitzer didn’t play Bach as well as Greatorex.

Benjamin Britten was a unique force in British music. Of the brilliant composers among his contemporaries, none wrote such a wide variety of music across such a broad spectrum of genres and for such a range of ages and abilities. In many ways, though he might have been surprised by the comparison, he was the natural successor to Vaughan Williams, whose instincts for community and the nurture of amateur musicians brought him an almost cult-like status in Britain. Britten didn’t devote himself so wholeheartedly to these things, but a sizeable proportion of his choral music is easily within the reach of a good ordinary choir, another part is well within the grasp of a reasonable church choir, and there is, of course, all the music he wrote specifically for children. Among the sixty or so non-operatic choral works there are also works which are exceptionally demanding and perhaps best left to professionals and outstanding amateurs. The range of this output and the frequency of performance of the better-known works underline just how important Britten is to the world of choral singing, all over the world.

As with many composers who have devoted themselves to writing a large corpus of music for one particular genre, Britten has suffered from being too well-known for a few familiar pieces. Rejoice in the Lamb, A Ceremony of Carols, Hymn to the Virgin, Hymn to St Cecilia, Jubilate Deo in C and others have tended to obscure the fuller picture of Britten’s choral music.

Britten was a practical composer. He knew that the music he wrote was performable because he himself was an accomplished professional musician. This is, again, where the Vaughan Williams analogy holds good. To be there, in among those doing the singing, directing the performance, advising other conductors and acquiring great expertise and experience over a creative lifetime, gave him an unusual insight into what choirs enjoy singing. He discovered what levels were attainable by different types of group, and did much to encourage that sense of ambition which has led to a genuine rise in the quality of amateur choral music-making.

Britten’s style grew out of the English choral tradition he knew so well. He wasn’t a cathedral chorister but he boarded at Gresham’s School from the age of 14. There he was exposed to the standard repertoire of the Anglican Church and his earliest well-known piece, A Hymn to the Virgin, was written when he was only 16 and still a schoolboy. It was written in the school sanatorium when he was laid up with an illness for a few days and unequivocally shows his feeling for the beauty and potential of choral sound. It is no wonder that this precocious talent should develop to the extent it did. While he wrote more stylistically searching music, this early gem sets the scene for a choral output that is essentially approachable, tonal, lyrical, and pleasing to both performer and listener.

The use of a solo quartet or small semi-chorus, best placed at a distance, brings a dramatic element to the essential simplicity of the carol. The Latin responses of the semi-chorus to the medieval English words of the main choir give these responses a further element of mystery adding another layer of spiritual drama. The ratcheting up of the intensity in the final verse by increasing the tempo leading the piece to its climax, and the final tranquillo page with its mesmerizingly beautiful final phrase shows Britten’s inherent feel for drama which was to find its proper outlet in the operas. That piece was written in Britten’s last term at Gresham’s when he had won his scholarship to the RCM. This was 1930 when he was only sixteen. His teachers were John Ireland (composition) and Arthur Benjamin (piano). Two years later came one of his most remarkable choral works A Boy was Born. Here, his precociousness was an issue for potential publishers who could not believe that this obvious brilliance could be maintained. Hubert Foss of OUP, for instance, wrote that ‘it was one of the most remarkable choral works I have ever heard’ but he recommended that Boosey’s ‘waste some money on him so long as we can keep his more remunerative efforts’. What cynicism, and what a short-sighted view for which OUP must have kicked themselves ever afterwards – especially this year! They did, however publish this work! Critics at the time were very schoolmasterly and patronizing about young talent of almost any kind. William McNaught, for instance, wrote of Britten’s Sinfonietta from exactly this same time that ‘This young spark is good company for as long as his persiflage remains fresh, which is not very long. To do him justice his Sinfonietta closed down in good time.’ Ouch! It seems that everyone recognized that Britten was an exceptional talent but that they wanted to keep him down as long as possible.

The extent of Britten’s early genius can, to some extent, be measured by A Boy was Born. It demonstrates clearly his almost supernatural creative gifts. A rock-solid technique is evident, but also the ability to develop ideas over a large span of time and, while testing even the best choirs to their limits, Britten nevertheless always writes within the grasp of what is possible, and not only possible but supremely effective. Each movement contributes to the developing relationship with the initial theme, while also sitting perfectly within an unfolding ‘Suite’ of movements. It is an extraordinary achievement for a nineteen year old.

The originality of this work is not especially in its language which is (and was then) perfectly approachable, but in its scale, scope, difficulty and the fact that, for the first time in his output, he uses a boys choir as well as the SATB choir which has to perform serious vocal acrobatics. Britten himself doubted that the work would become popular as it was so difficult, and it is true that it is really only performable by professional choirs or exceptional amateurs.
It is difficult to pinpoint the degree of Britten’s personal faith. Soon after his institutional obligations were discharged and he could exercise choice he stopped going to church, but that does not imply that he did lose a sense of spirituality. Peter Pears made the point that ‘He was religious in the general sense of acknowledging a power above greater than ourselves, but he wasn’t a regular church-goer. In his moral attitudes he was Low Church, and therefore inclined to be puritanical.’[1] On another occasion Pears remarked that Britten was an agnostic with a great love for Jesus Christ.[2] Whatever the truth of the matter there is no doubt that Christianity played an important part in Britten’s life and not only does this manifest itself overtly through the liturgical music but it also appears like a leitmotif through his works and in areas where it might be least expected – think of Peter Grimes. In Graham Elliott’s book Benjamin Britten and the Spiritual Dimension Elliott quotes a letter which Britten wrote to Imogen Holst in which he remarked, ‘the manner in which you approach the Christian idea delighted me. I used to think that the day when one could shock people was over – but now, I’ve discovered that being simple and considering things of spiritual importance, produces violent reactions!’[3]

An important connection was made early in his student days in London when he attended services at St. Mark’s, North Audley Street for whom he was soon to write his C major Te Deum and E flat Jubilate (both written in 1934), and where his extended Wedding Anthem (1949) was also premiered. Now this C major Te Deum is, I believe, one of Britten’s strongest choral works. It is interesting that the Festival Te Deum which Britten wrote in 1945 for St. Mark’s Swindon has eclipsed this other setting. Yet, the C major work is, to my mind, the greater of the two. Personal comparisons are of course invidious and really what is important is the acknowledgement of Britten’s genius in approaching the same words in so wholly different a manner. To this extent it would be possible to programme both works in a concert and for an audience to enjoy being challenged to see how Britten responds so differently to the same imagery in each setting. It is the heady drama of the C major setting which I find so compelling. The powerful simplicity of the building C major chords responding to the dark, syncopated ostinato pedal figure in the organ part, and doing nothing but singing C major chords for over two pages is an extraordinarily economical opening and of course puts the first discord in stark and powerful contrast when the words Holy, Holy, Holy are reached.

The middle section is, as so often, given to a treble (soprano) solo with the choir singing very soft phrases to the words, O Christ, in wonder. The return to the opening material occurs for the final section O Lord, save Thy people, and the work ends quietly with the organ pedals reminding us of that key ostinato figure from the beginning.

Britten wrote four ‘hymns’ which make a really interesting, varied and colourful concert group, not to mention their obvious potential as anthems. After A Hymn to the Virgin come A Hymn to St Cecilia, A Hymn of St Columba and Hymn to St Peter. Of these only the Hymn to St Cecilia has achieved a really popular following. A Hymn of St Columba is a fascinating, short anthem written in 1962 for the 1400th anniversary of the voyage Columba made from Ireland to Iona. The first performance was given outdoors via a recording at Churchill, County Donegal, where Columba was supposed to have preached, but the performance was almost inaudible because of the strength of the wind! I wonder how he fared all those years earlier!

This piece, once mastered, will leave a far greater impression than its roughly two minute duration would suggest. The organ sets up an unsettling rhythmic figure in the pedals and the choir sings a Latin text which is in the manner of a Dies Irae, the words being about the day of judgement, and speaking of the fire in Columba’s belly for his missionary task. Britten reflects this by asking that the piece should be performed Broadly, but with fire, a clear reflection of the passionate nature of this text and Britten’s response to it. The power of the opening choral line starting piano and building quickly to forte as it rises and falls to piano again is impressive. No composer of music for the Anglican church had written quite in this manner before. It is a mark of Britten’s originality that he approached each work with such fresh imagination. Where others before him had impressed by pomp, noise, sensuality or rhythmic junkets Britten simply impresses by his ability to communicate the message of the text through music which, while certainly contemporary, never lets style get in the way of the message. In fact the style positively enhances the means of communication.

One of the important influences gained while at school was plainsong. This was a fundamental discovery for Britten and he used it often in a wide variety of compositions. An obvious example is the opening and closing of A Ceremony of Carols which is intended as processional chant and is impressive when used in this way. Another example is the Hymn to St Peter written in 1955 for the Quincentenary of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich. The organ proclaims the Tu es Petrus chant loudly and in unison before the choir sings words from the Gradual of the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. Rather like St. Columba the opening section is in unison and the organ pedals play a variation on the plainchant theme. The impression is supposed to reflect the rock-like nature of Peter’s faith (Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church).

Then there comes a wholly unexpected section which is rather like the scherzo in A Hymn to St Cecilia. We move into 6/8 and Britten creates a lively dance for the idea that St Peter’s ‘children’ (his sons in faith) born to him ‘instead of thy fathers’ will be the future foundation of the church which he inherited from Jesus Christ – obviously a point of celebration. After a return of the opening, organ chant and all, the music subsides through a series of Alleluias to the inevitable treble solo singing the Tu es Petrus plainchant while the choir quietly sings the ‘Thou art Peter …’text. This roughly six-minute anthem is not difficult, sounds impressive, and many choirs could enjoy its challenges and rewards.

Another rarely performed work which shows the breadth of Britten’s originality is the Antiphon written in 1956 for the centenary of the late lamented St Michael’s College, Tenbury. Britten chose an exuberant text by George Herbert and takes his creative cue from Herbert’s imagery of humankind below and angels above: Praisèd be the God of Love, here below and here above. This division is graphically illustrated by the use of lower voices for the earthbound and three solo treble voices for the angels above. The solo trebles sing in a kind of suspended animation – a slower tempo, and phrases which rise and fall like angels’ wings. Having moved backwards and forwards between these two characters the choir eventually re-animates the piece with an exciting ‘fugato’ which builds up a terrific head of steam with the organ part given crashing alternate hand chords and the pedals taking wing from the bottom to the top (literally) of the pedal board. A brief silence, and a chorale-like unison line then subsides into a magical ending. The three trebles sing triads to the word ‘one’ whilst the chorus responds with a variety of low chords on the word ‘two’. The whole thing eventually draws together like a magnet resolving onto a lovely chord of F major with everyone singing the word ‘one’. Some have felt this final page to be a touch sentimental. Not a bit of it. It is a colourful and effective resolution of the two elements played out throughout the anthem.

Britten collaborated with the poet Ronald Duncan in a number of works including his opera The Rape of Lucretia and the play This Way to the Tomb for which he wrote incidental music including a dramatic setting of Psalm 70 Deus in adjutorium meum: Haste Thee, O God, to deliver me: make haste to help me, O Lord although Britten sets it in Latin. He treats the piece sectionally as the subject matter changes. So Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul begins low and agitatedly rhythmic. The Tranquillo Magnificetur Dominus section (The Lord be praised) is I think one of the loveliest choral phrases Britten wrote. The setting ends with a Gloria Patri set over a three-note ground bass where the basses and altos are in canon, and a longer soprano phrase which is also in canon with the tenors. Britten loved canons! There is a quiet ending as if the choir had processed out of the church. Duncan asked Britten to write it in 1945 for his play: This Way to the Tomb while Britten was deeply immersed in writing Peter Grimes. Once again we come up against the issue of originality in this setting seeming to stand in the way of its general acceptance. Of course Britten was writing for a theatrical production and not for the church, but this stand-alone Psalm works equally well in church or for a concert performance.

In other choral works Britten writes sacred music although it may be part of an essentially non-religious work. Take Sacred and Profane, for example, which was written for Peter Pears’ Wilbye Consort who first performed it at the Snape Maltings in September 1975. The eight movements contrast sacred and secular texts and are sung in the original medieval pronunciation – a wonderful additional colour which adds a certain earthiness to the vocal sound. The unfamiliarity of the sound world feels rather like a medieval statue coming to life and speaking to us. These are very challenging settings normally only taken on by professional choirs, but these days we do have some outstanding amateur groups who take what is thrown at them in their stride.

The emotional hub of the work is the seventh movement: ‘Ye that pasen by’ the text of which suggests that all who pass by should stay a little while and ponder on the terrible act of torture inflicted upon the saviour of mankind. It is one of Britten’s most powerful miniature creations. The way he interweaves the vocal lines so that there is a huge increase of tension leading to an incandescent climax is truly impressive. This piece stays with me for a long time after I hear or conduct it.

But what is rather unexpected in Sacred and Profane is the amount of humour, sheer good fun, even jokes which pepper the score. And in order to show you the balance of the work, I’ll move away briefly from church or sacred music to show you the final movement. It is a vivid description of an elderly crone whose eyes are misty, her ears hiss, her nose is cold, her lips blacken, her spital runs, her heart trembles, her hands shake, her feet stiffen and as she dies she proclaims: ‘I shall pass from bed to floor, from floor to shroud, from shroud to bier, from bier to grave…then rests my house upon my nose. For the whole world I don’t care a jot!’ It is a great ending to this truly original work. The challenge for the choir – or for the group of soloists if performing it as Pears did in that first performance – is to colour all those different ailments to be descriptive, and to put across the underlying sense of fun!

I am purposefully avoiding talking about works which everyone knows really well, some of which I listed earlier on because part of my mission this year is to try to introduce people to areas of Britten’s output which are rarely, if ever, performed. The popular works do not need my help and most of you will be perfectly familiar with pieces like Rejoice in the Lamb and the Ceremony of Carols.

One major choral work which I love and which barely ever sees the light of day is the Wedding Anthem written for the marriage of the Earl of Harewood with Marion Stein in St. Mark’s, North Audley Street, London in 1949, the church I mentioned before when I was talking about the C major Te Deum. St Mark’s was a big society church in the heart of Mayfair which had a fine musical tradition and a large Rushworth and Dreaper organ which, after the closure of St. Mark’s was rehoused at Holy Trinity, Brompton.

Ronald Duncan also wrote the words for this anthem. The piece needs two expert soloists, a soprano and tenor, to do the extended solo passages justice. It’s wonderfully upbeat as one would expect for such an occasionand the organ part swirls around with flying semiquavers while the choir sings peals of bells to words Ave Maria. These sections are extended refrains and it’s in the solo passages that the meat and the beauty of the work is realized. The soprano takes the first followed by a quiet Ave Maria refrain. The tenor takes a more extended second and the two together coo and bill taking top B flats in their stride and dancing their way towards the words Amo ergo Sum (I love, therefore I am). The anthem ends with a magical quiet resolution.

Some will feel that this is not Britten’s finest hour, and maybe it isn’t. But what constantly strikes me as I visit and revisit these choral works is the power of invention which he displays. He never falls into the trap of writing something which feels like an ‘off the peg’ commission, something recycled. This is not something many composers of church music of this period – and perhaps any period can say or demonstrate. I am reminded of the composer Howard Ferguson who, in starting to compose a string quartet following his wonderful 1958 choral and orchestral work The Dream of the Rood found he was simply returning to formuli and progressions he had used many times before and he decided to stop composing, feeling that he had said all that had to say. How many composers show this kind of integrity? But the point is that Britten didn’t need to concern himself in this way because his invention seemed endlessly fresh with each new response to a text.

As a postscript to the first performance of the Wedding Anthem there is an amusing recollection by Susana Walton (Walton’s colourful Argentinian wife) who said ‘When Ben Britten, who had composed the wedding anthem, and Peter Pears, who had sung it, appeared dressed as choirboys in white surplices over red cassocks, we burst into giggles and were silenced only by a severe reprimand from John Piper and his wife in the next pew’!
But the scarcity of performances of this piece does bring me back to the central theme of this talk asserting that Britten’s originality gets in the way of a good deal of his choral music’s more general acceptance and the resulting concentration on a few over-performed pieces.

The C major Jubilate has overshadowed everything else partly because it is refreshingly bright, easy to sing and compared with traditional settings is a breath of fresh air. It was commissioned by the Duke of Edinburgh but Britten initially resisted his first approach saying ‘to try and make bricks out of the Morning Prayer would be a step into the past – the whole tendency is towards the People’s Mass’. But Prince Philip persisted saying he was happy to commission a congregational mass as well. So the Jubilate was written, a Te Deum was started but never finished (there was after all the earlier Te Deum in the same key), and later we found that he had also written a setting of the Venite. This setting was only found after Britten’s death but is a fascinating a rather beautiful contemplative chant-like setting although it builds to a heady climax at the temptation in the wilderness. This is a prime example of the kind of piece which really deserves to be far more widely taken up even though Mattins is a dying liturgy and is celebrated by fewer and fewer choral foundations as each year passes. Like the Te Deum and Jubilate the music can still be used liturgically.

What about Britten and Christmas? Britten loved Christmas – it was another aspect of his constant desire to recreate childhood. We all know A Ceremony of Carols and A Hymn to the Virgin which I have already talked about, but there are other pieces which are beautiful and are almost never performed which would grace any carol service or concert.

A singularly beautiful example to my mind is an upper voices carol with contralto solo called Sweet was the Song. This is another piece from his student days at the RCM and his diary records that he finished it on 12 January 1931. It was incorporated into a Christmas Suite he called Christ’s Nativity written a year before A Boy was Born and it represented a huge step towards the writing of that astonishing piece. Britten was endlessly drawn to texts unified by a common poetic theme and the inspiration for this suite was an anthology of Christmas carols given to him by his sister, Barbara, the year before. It has five movements, and while it is obviously ‘work in progress’ for a composition student, it’s a wide-ranging and fascinating piece to programme at Christmas. At its heart lies the beautiful upper voices carol Sweet was the song which to my mind is very much the precursor of ‘Jesus as thou art our saviour’ from A Boy was Born of which more in a moment.

There are a number of other works for Christmas I feel are overlooked like The Sycamore Tree and A Shepherd’s Carol, both rarely performed and which I am sure would be more regularly sung if people actually knew them! The title of The Sycamore Tree is slightly misleading as the carol is actually I saw three ships a-sailing there and Britten makes a suitably joyful setting which continues unabated until the bells peal in the final verse. Christmas is also the season for King Herod and the Cock and The Oxen. These two short carols are both piano accompanied and perhaps more suited to carol concerts, but for those who like to explore byways here are two Christmas offerings which would not detain a choir long in rehearsal but would either make two carols for upper voices, or King Herod could be sung by men (it is a unison arrangement of a traditional melody) and The Oxen by women’s voices as stipulated. So there are plenty of other seasonal treats in Britten’s work list.

And lastly, from this crucial period of the church’s year, The Shepherd’s Carol which I think is one of his most hauntingly beautiful settings. It is remarkable to think that this little piece with its odd text had its origins in an intended Christmas Oratorio (the libretto of which Auden later called For the Time Being) planned when Britten and Auden were living in the States during the war. When Britten returned to the UK he set the words of this carol for a BBC Radio programme. Auden had suggested a jazz or folk-song idiom and Britten chose the latter to make a mesmerizingly beautiful piece with a haunting refrain. Each refrain is separated by a solo for each voice part in turn showing Auden’s amazing imagination and Britten’s resulting flight of fancy. It does need a conductor who can persuade the choir to look beyond the rather strange words which include (‘little pinkie’, ‘wicked sheriff‘, ‘breeding white canaries’ etc.) to the real message which is of the fundamental nature of profound love.

So, finally, what did others say about Britten? We have seen at the start of this talk some of the things he said about other people, now here’s a few choice comments from others about him!

John Ireland: ‘The Turn of the Screw contains the most remarkable and original music I have ever heard from the pen of a British composer. What he has accomplished in sound by the use of only 13 instruments was, to me, inexplicable; almost miraculous. This is not to say I liked the music, but it is gripping, vital, and often terrifying. I am now (perhaps reluctantly) compelled to regard Britten as possessing ten times the musical talent, intuition and ability of all other living British composers put together.’

Sir Charles Mackerras: ‘The greatest musician I have ever worked with. Although we all revered Ben’s musicianship and loved him as a man in many ways, we were slightly amused by his homosexuality.’

Shostakovich: ‘You great composer, I little composer.’  !!!

Hans Keller: ‘Mozart and Britten are the only two composers I know who strongly and widely attract people who do not understand them.’

E.M.Forster: ‘I am rather a fierce old man at the moment – and he is rather a spoilt boy, and certainly a busy one.’ (1950 when Britten was 37)

Janet Baker: ‘To be with him was a bit like being with the Queen: in those circumstances you’re never quite natural. I suppose it’s almost like the sensation of being in love. Something happens to time, and one seems to be living in a highly volatile present. From those who worked with him he demanded absolute loyalty. The commitment had to be complete. If anybody fell below his high standards, they were asking for trouble.

Robin Holloway: ‘This music has the power to connect the avant-garde with the lost paradise of tonality’.

How true: and in many ways, that is where we came in at the beginning. Happy 100th birthday Benjamin Britten!


© Paul Spicer – Lichfield 2013

[1] Alan Blyth, Remembering Britten, London, 1981, 22

[2] Graham Elliott, Benjamin Britten and the Spiritual Dimension Oxford, 2006, 4

[3] ibid

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