Britten – music does not exist in a vacuum
Three Overgrown Paths converge. Antoine Leboyer wrote about the role of hall acoustics in creating good ensemble, sfmike asked about live performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, and the Middle East is a recurring nightmare here, and everywhere. This convergence sent me back to the inspirational speech Britten made when he accepted the first Aspen Award in the Humanities in 1964:
And then the best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem – I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best. I believe you see, in occasional music, although I admit there are some occasions which can intimidate one – I do not envy Purcell writing his Ode to Celebrate King James’s Return to London from Newmarket. On the other hand almost every piece I have ever written has been composed with a certain occasion in mind, and usually for definite performers, and certainly always human ones.
When I am asked to compose a work for an occasion, great or small, I want to know in some detail the conditions of the place where it will be performed, the size and acoustics, what instruments or singers will be available and suitable, the kind of people who will hear it, and what language they will understand – and even sometimes the age of the listeners and performers. For it is futile to offer children music by which they are bored, or which makes them feel inadequate or frustrated, which may set them against music forever; and it is insulting to address anyone in a language which they do not understand. The text of my War Requiem was perfectly in place in Coventry Cathedral – the Owen poems in the vernacular, and the words of the Requiem Mass familiar to everyone – but it would have been pointless in Cairo or Peking.
During the act of composition one is continually referring back to the conditions of performance – as I have said, the acoustics and the forces available, the techniques of the instruments and the forces available, the techniques of the instruments and the voices – such questions occupy one’s attention continuously, and certainly affects the stuff of the music, and in my experience are not only in a restriction, but a challenge, an inspiration. Music does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed, and performance imposes conditions. It is the easiest thing in the world to write a piece virtually or totally impossible to perform – but oddly enough that is not what I prefer to do; I prefer to study the conditions of performance and shape my music to them.
Where does one stop, then, in answering people’s demands? It seems that there is no clearly defined Halt sign on the road. The only brake which one can apply is that of one’s own private and personal conscience; when that speaks clearly, one must halt; and it can speak for musical or non-musical reasons. In the last six months I have been asked several times to write a work as a memorial to the late President Kennedy (Pliable – don’t forget this was written in 1964). On each occasion I have refused – not because in any way I was out of sympathy with such an idea, on the contrary, I was horrified and deeply moved by the tragic death of a very remarkable man. But for me I do not feel the time is ripe; I cannot yet stand back and see it clear. I should have to wait very much longer to do anything like justice to this great theme. But had I in fact agreed to undertake a limited commission, my artistic conscience would certainly have told me in what direction I could go, and when I should have to stop.
Benjamin Britten received the first Robert O. Anderson Aspen Award in the Humanities to honour ‘the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities’. Although the Aspen Award never achieved the currency of the Nobel prizes there were similarities, not the least being that Alfred Nobel made his fortune from explosives, and Robert O. Aspen made his from petroleum.
The header photo shows the unique, and sublime, performing space that Britten created in the Snape Maltings (image credit Jeremy Young via Architecture Week). Britten was a true humanist. As well as being one of the 20th century's most important composers he was responsible for the post-war opera revival in Britain, advocated Purcell and other neglected early composers, started a festival that showcased contemporary music, and built (and rebuilt) one of the world's finest concert halls. His love for the Suffolk coast, portrayed so vividly in the Four Sea Interludes, predated today's environmentalism by decades. He lived in an openly homosexual relationship in the dark days when such arrangements were still illegal in the UK, and in the War Requiem made one of the great pacifist statements of our time. He was an international standard pianist and conductor, championed Russian music and artists during the Soviet Unions darkest hours, and was the dedicatee of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony. Britten's music most certainly does not exist in a vacuum.
Britten never composed a memorial to J.F. Kennedy. But Herbert Howells wrote his sublime motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing which I wrote about recently. And, of course, Leonard Bernstein's Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy in honour of the slain President, and the fallout from that work still resounds in my article Critical Mass, and elsewhere. Bernstein's music most definitely did not exist in a vacuum, and I can confirm from one of my own encouters with Lennie that he was certainly larger than life. Britten met Bernstein when he attended the US premiere of Peter Grimes in Tanglewood in 1946 which Bernstein conducted. Humphrey Burton takes up the story in his biography of Bernstein:
Within hours of the conclusion of the premiere Bernstein was playing boogie-woogie at the cast party. As Eric Crozier, the English director, remembered, Bernstein was more interested in talking to Auden, whom he revered, than to Britten, who was no great shakes as a party-goer. Reciprocally, perhaps Britten did not warm to his flamboyant interpreter and never invited him to perform at the Aldeburgh Festival, which he founded two years later.
But, despite this, Bernstein retained his affection for Britten's music. Bernstein's last concert, given in Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra just months before his death in 1990, included a heart-stoppingly slow, but immensely moving, performance of the Four Sea Interludes. Which brings this particular Overgrown Path full circle, and back to where we started in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
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Read more about the Snape Maltings concert hall pictured above in Music will rise from the wreckage..... and Easter at Aldeburgh