Thursday, 12 February 2009

“Meat for the Cultured Few”

There are around 80,000 pieces of correspondence in the Britten-Pears Foundation archives – together with notebooks, diaries and nearly all of the composer’s music manuscripts – carefully preserved for scholars and researchers in Britten’s final home, the Red House, Aldeburgh. The addition of another one to this impressive collection would hardly seem worth mentioning, yet this newly-acquired letter from Britten to the composer Alan Bush – dating from August 1936 – reveals the 22 year old composer striving to find a modern musical language that audiences would understand.

In a fascinating new online publication, News from the Red House, Chris Grogan outlines the significance of the letter:

The composer Alan Bush was preparing some lectures on English music and had written to ask Britten, an exciting newcomer on the scene, for his opinions.

I am at the moment going through a species of mental spring-cleaning. One arrives at a time of life, I feel, in which after a certain success a decision must be faced.

Discovering Mahler, a growing appreciation of Beethoven, and hearing ‘too much contemporary music’ had left the young composer at a ‘mental crossroads’:

I feel the scope of music has suddenly become too narrow – well, the last 50 years. Too introspective – too self-consciously original. Every Tom, Dick or Harry in the musical world, who tries to compose, labours to find some watertight ‘style’ – composed of little mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. Every great composer naturally has his personal style – but it is not necessarily obvious at a first glance. It is the composer’s right, I feel, to use any manner, of any composer or period…If he is worth his salt he will endow it with his own personality and style – if he isn’t, well, it doesn’t much matter, but the piece stands a chance of being listenable-to! Every BBC or contemporary music concert I go to emphasizes this point – and it is the reason why modern music has become the meat for only the cultured few.

To read more, visit the BPF website and follow the link to the newsletter.

For more Britten letters covering a later period including the composition of The Turn of the Screw and The Prince of the Pagodas, look here. Chris Grogan is Head of Collections and Heritage at the BPF and editor of the acclaimed Imogen Holst: A Life in Music.

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