Friday, 25 April 2008

Britten's New Musical World

There was a palpable sense of excitement at Whitwell House when the final typescript of Letters from a Life arrived. The fourth volume of Britten’s selected letters covers a fascinating period in his life and career. Here, Philip Reed describes one of the many significant letters in this latest collection:

One of the most interesting items of correspondence in the fourth volume of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten is a letter Britten wrote to the poet Edith Sitwell on 28 April 1955. He had known Sitwell well since the early 1940s; she had given poetry readings at the Aldeburgh Festival, as well as sharing the role of the reciter in Walton’s Façade ‘entertainment’ with Peter Pears at several English Opera Group concerts. In the autumn of 1954, following the success of his opera The Turn of the Screw, Britten made a setting of Sitwell’s powerful poem Still falls the Rain – The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn as his Canticle III, for tenor, horn and piano.

The subject matter of the opera (which was closely based on Henry James’s novella) and the canticle drew from Britten an economy of musical organization and intensity of emotional expression not hitherto to be found to such a degree in his output. It was in fact something that Britten, rarely given to making portentous pronouncements about his compositional ambitions and aspirations in his correspondence (or, for that matter, anywhere else), articulated in his 1955 letter to Sitwell:

[...] writing this work [Canticle III] has helped me so much in my development as a composer. I feel with this work & the Turn of the Screw [...] that I am on the threshold of a new musical world (for me, I am not pretentious about it!) I am worried by the problems which arise, & that is one reason that I am taking of next winter to do some deep thinking. But your great poem has dragged something from me that was latent there, & shown me what lies before.

We note that even when making this declaration to Sitwell – and it is of no little interest that he makes this disclosure to a non-musician – Britten immediately undercuts his remark with a self-deprecating aside. But having found his way to the ‘threshold of a new musical world’, Britten needed time for proper consideration of the compositional possibilities open to him. In short, what was he to do, faced with a musical language that had distilled to such a degree?

By 1955 Britten was in his early forties; he had already enjoyed a career of more than twenty years’ standing and had emerged in the mid-1940s as the most successful British composer of his generation, with a surprisingly strong international following. But the quantity of works from the decade that began with Peter Grimes and ended with The Turn of the Screw could not realistically be sustained, even for a composer of Britten’s prodigious gifts.

Turning the pages of his catalogue of compositions between 1944 and 1954 leaves one dizzy in admiration not only for the sheer amount of notes composed but also for the range of his compositions. It will surely come to be recognized as one of the most sustained compositional feats of twentieth-century music; the achievement is all the more remarkable when one recalls just how frantically busy Britten was throughout this period as performer, conductor, festival organizer and administrator. No doubt if Britten had not possessed the specific creative personality he did, he might have continued, perhaps at a slightly less frenetic pace, on the path he had already marked out as his own. But his aim for achieving maximum communication articulated through the most concentrated musical material expressed in The Turn of the Screw and Canticle III led the composer to a point in 1955 where he wanted to stand back and take stock of the situation.

The timing of the world trip he and Pears made in 1955–56 (a major section of the new volume of Britten Letters) coincidentally came at the very moment when Britten was contemplating which direction his music should take. Through his first-hand encounter with Far Eastern music at this key juncture, Britten alighted on techniques with which he could identify and assimilate into his own music language. The effects of his identification with the techniques of the music he heard in Indonesia, Japan and India in 1956 would permeate his music thereafter.

Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten will be published by the Boydell Press in May.

Friday, 18 April 2008

The Elgar "Debate"

Last month we mentioned Hugh Wood’s lively review of a clutch of Elgar titles in the Times Literary Supplement. Wood noted that “the skies have darkened with flocks of celebratory books coming home to roost” but was kind to Diana McVeagh’s Elgar the Music Maker, our own contribution to the flock. His extended piece on the five titles ranged broadly, taking in a spirited defence of Anthony Payne’s reconstruction of Elgar’s Third Symphony and some possibly barbed remarks about New Musicologists along the way.

Since then there has been a frank exchange of views, as they say, on the letters pages of the TLS. Under the heading Elgar and Schenker in the April 4th issue, three correspondents took issue with Mr Wood, one even referring to him as Basil Fawlty. Richard F Taruskin accused him of “insularity, anti-intellectualism, know-it-all complacency, proud ignorance, [and] blimpish spite”. This could not be ignored, of course, and Hugh Wood was allowed to respond to what he saw as Taruskin’s “random, all-purpose, indiscriminate abuse” with an amusing letter in the 18th April issue.

Somewhere amongst the smoke and cordite stands Elgar, as two online correspondents have already pointed out (“Critics can be safely ignored,” offered a gentleman from New Zealand). However, Wood was always going to write an interesting and provocative article, as anyone who has read the recently-published collection of his writings (including some earlier TLS reviews), Staking Out the Territory, will know. This one could run and run…

Monday, 14 April 2008

Rubbra on Future Radio

Among the delights in store for listeners to Bob Shingleton's Future Radio show on April 20th will be Edmund Rubbra's sixth symphony played by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Norman del Mar. Those wanting to learn more about this and other symphonic works by Rubbra need look no further than Leo Black's recent book on the composer.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Berlioz? Encore!

The University of Rochester Press has published a cluster of books on Berlioz, including the first full English translation of the composer’s Les Grotesques de la musique (The Musical Madhouse) and a study of his “semi-operas”. This month sees the publication of Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work; its editor, Peter Bloom, thinks back over the Berlioz “renaissance,” as he puts it, that has occurred in the last decade.

I will always remember the words “Berlioz? Encore!” (Berlioz? not again!) as articulated by François Lesure, the very distinguished and famously cynical director of the music department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, when I told him I was doing another book on the French composer. François headed the music library from 1970 to 1988, the years during which I molted from graduate student to “scholar” and became what the French would call a berliozien pur et dur. He was himself a — I should say the — great Debussy specialist. His various articles, biography, and catalogue remain the standard works in the field. But he did come around to seeing something in Berlioz, he did welcome me and other Berlioz buffs to the library, he did participate in the publication of Berlioz’s Correspondance générale, and he did join the Comité International Hector Berlioz that became the motivating force of the second Berlioz renaissance, which took place during the approach to and aftermath of the celebrations of Berlioz’s bicentenary (2003).

The first Berlioz renaissance is the one sparked by the publication in 1950 of Jacques Barzun’s great cultural history, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, and the brilliant performances in England of Les Troyens, under Rafael Kubelik (1957) and Colin Davis (1969). The second one, which I would assign the dates 1997 to 2007, saw the completion of the New Berlioz Edition and of the Correspondance générale d’Hector Berlioz, another epoch-making performance of Les Troyens (under John Eliot Gardiner, at the Châtelet, in 2003), and the publication of the papers from five conferences — at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts; in Bayreuth; in London; in Grenoble and La Côte-Saint-André; and in Paris. I edited the Smith College conference papers for the volume University of Rochester Press brought out in 2003 under the title Berlioz: Past, Present, Future.

After attending all the other conferences and hearing the results of so much good research, I felt that there was plenty of material for another volume of essays on Berlioz, and set about compiling what has now become Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work. Not wishing to blow my own horn (I gave up my career as an oboist some years ago), I do nonetheless think that some aspects of this new collection are worth touting. The volume opens with an essay by my much-honored friend Jacques Barzun, whose one-hundredth birthday was celebrated world-wide on and around 30 November 2007. It brings into English three essays written for the occasion by French scholars of great renown in their home country. It also includes essays by two German scholars and one Dutchman (who, when not flying around Europe as a professional flutist, may be found digging in the archives of the towns were Berlioz walked the walk). Finally, the volume presents four essays by scholars born and educated in the United Kingdom. Which makes me, the twelfth contributor, the only “true” American — which is no longer completely true, since I added French citizenship to my own more than a dozen years ago, thanks to Berlioz and my French wife!

In the new collection, Hugh Macdonald, who miraculously brought the New Berlioz Edition to completion in 2005, offers a bit of surprising speculation about Berlioz’s initial musical reaction to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Joël-Marie Fauquet paints a troubling portrait of Berlioz’s imaginary musical utopia, Euphonia. Gérard Condé turns on its head our usual image of Berlioz the reluctant journalist. And Jacques Barzun finds a new way to tell us, as he has in countless other ways over countless decades, how we ought to write about music. Other essays, we trust, offer equally appetizing food for thought.

I wrote “Berlioz buffs” in my opening paragraph after rejecting the expression “Berlioz freaks.” In his own day and long afterwards, Berlioz himself was seen as something of a freak. But thanks in part to the performances, books, and scholars I have mentioned, he has resumed his rightful place as one of the B’s — one of the boldest, one of the best.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Sterndale Bennett at the RCM

Last month, Peter Horton, musicologist and Deputy Librarian at the Royal College of Music, organised a Sterndale Bennett Study Day with the pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, Constant and Kit Lambert Junior Fellow at the RCM. Here is his report for From Beyond the Stave:

Despite being hailed by Mendelssohn and Schumann as one of the most promising composers of his time, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75) never achieved the greatness they believed he was capable of. Were their claims inflated, or were there other reasons for his failure? Combining talks and performances, the recent Sterndale Bennett Study Day at the Royal College of Music explored the life and music of this fascinating musician and attempted to place his work in its historical context.

But how did Mendelssohn and Schumann come to be promoting the career of a forgotten English musician? The answer can be traced back to a fateful day in June 1833 when the seventeen year-old composer and pianist played his first piano concerto at the Royal Academy of Music end-of-year concert. The audience included Mendelssohn who promptly invited him to Leipzig, not as a pupil but as a friend. It was not until 1836 that Bennett was able to take up his offer, but the eight months he spent in Germany (October 1836 to June 1837) had a profound influence on his career. Supported by a small legacy, he immersed himself in the city’s invigorating musical environment, so far removed from that of the commercially-orientated concerts that dominated London’s musical life. No less significantly, he recorded his impressions in a diary that provides a fascinating insight into his life in the city – his first sight of a Christmas tree, his thoughts on the music and musicians he heard, the evenings spent drinking beer or champagne with Schumann, German lessons, his 21st birthday, his debut at the Gewandhaus concerts. But there are also regular hints of homesickness and from this time onwards he was caught between two stools – the artistic satisfaction and encouragement that he found in Germany, or the ties of nationality, family and friends that bound him to his homeland. Here, in a nutshell, we find one reason for Bennett’s failure to develop the immense achievement of his youth.

The key to understanding Mendelssohn and Schumann’s excitement over Bennett’s prospects is to be found in the substantial body of music he had composed before the age of 21 – four piano concertos, four symphonies, four concert overtures and several substantial works for solo piano – and, after an aptly-titled ‘A family perspective’ by Barry Sterndale-Bennett (his great, great grandson), this was explored by Peter Horton. A lunchtime recital of piano music by Bennett and Schumann served as a reminder of the former’s links to Leipzig – Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques were dedicated to Bennett, while Bennett’s Piano Sonata in F minor was written as a wedding present for Mendelssohn. Bennett’s German connections surfaced again in Basil Keen’s study of his role in the foundation of the Bach Society in 1849 and in Bettina Mühlenbeck’s examination of the cultural significance of his two sets of bi-lingual songs. Stephen Varcoe and RCM students later offered a practical demonstration of how these works, together with songs by Mendelssohn, Schumann and their English contemporaries, fitted into the contemporary musical landscape. In his inimitable way David Owen Norris explored Bennett’s writing for the piano, and later, in the concluding concert, gave a thrilling performance of the Three Romances. Other works heard in the evening were a further selection of songs from Stephen Varcoe, the Cello Sonata – one of Bennett’s few works to date from the early 1850s – and the Sextet for piano and strings. The pianist in the last was Hiroaki Takenouchi who, together with Peter Horton, organised the Study Day, and his inspired playing brought proceedings to a very satisfying close.

No one who attended could have been left untouched by this intriguing, contradictory, figure, about whom so many questions remain to be answered. How, for example, does one connect the academic Bennett of the Lectures on Musical Life with the young man who so enjoyed champagne with Schumann? Or reconcile the superb pianist with the reluctant player, always on the lookout for an excuse not to perform? But perhaps the most sobering thought to emerge from a fascinating day was the fact that the majority of the music heard had been written before he reached the age of 22. But thoughts about what went wrong are another story!

Peter Horton and Bettina Mühlenbeck are currently working on an edition of Sterndale Bennett's Leipzig Diaries.