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 Fa├žade ‘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.

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