Britten's passion for the East

In a recent post I described the 2012 Aldeburgh Festival presentation of Jordi Savall's Mare Nostrum as a "bold piece of programming". But on reflection perhaps the performance of this transcultural work in the Snape Maltings is not so much bold as appropriate in view of Benjamin Britten's pioneering role in what later became known as world music.

Britten's initial interest in Far Eastern music was sparked by his friendship with the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee, who he met when living in New York between 1939 and 1942. There is more on this friendship in my post Colin McPhee - East collides with West, and the photo below shows the two composers in New York c. 1940. Britten's first operatic venture Paul Bunyan was composed in New York and Balinese influences can be heard in its Prologue, while in 1941 McPhee and Britten recorded McPhee's transcription for two pianos of Balinese Ceremonial Music.

This exposure to a different sound world must have piqued Britten's creative juices, because in 1955, accompanied by Peter Pears, he undertook a five month concert tour to Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Sri Lanka; the header photo shows Britten and Peter Pears on the beach in Bali. A decade before Indian journeys opened Philip Glass' ears to world music and George Harrison's to the sitar, Peter Pears wrote the following in his travel diary:

Ravi Shankar, a wonderful virtuoso, played his own Indian music to us at the [All India] Radio station & we attended a Broadcast. Brilliant, fascinating, stimulating, wonderfully played - first on a full orchestra of about 20 musicians, then solo on a sort of zither...
Britten's itinerary included two weeks on the island of Bali free from any concerts, and twelve days in Japan where he experienced Noh theatre and Gagaku instrumental court music. These experiences were a creative epiphany and after Britten returned to England in 1956 he incorporated Balinese elements into his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. Echoes of the gamelan can also be heard in many of his subsequent compositions, culminating in the valedictory opera Death in Venice where Balinese sonorities accompany the Games of Apollo, see Teatro la Fenice production shot below. Britten's exposure to Noh and Gagaku led to the composition of the first of his church parables, Curlew River, and the influence of the Japanese art forms is also apparent in the two later church parables and several of the composer's operas.

Britten's fascination with the orient is well documented, particularly in Mervyn Cooke's authoritative Britten and the Far East which this post draws on it. However, Mervyn Cooke's book, which is published in conjunction with the Britten-Pears Library, is a musicological rather than cultural study. Which means two important aspects of Britten's transcultural explorations are treated circumspectly or ignored altogether; these are the homoerotic element, and the question of whether Britten was guilty of musical colonialism.

It is impossible to separate Britten the composer and Britten the homosexual, and his specific strand of sexuality is no secret. In his chapter on the composer in The Rest is Noise Alex Ross writes that "What perplexed Britten was not his sexuality per se... but his longing for underage males", while John Bridcut has devoted an acclaimed book to the subject of 'Britten's Children'. In his contribution Eros and Orientalism in Britten's Operas to Queering the Pitch: The new Gay and Lesbian Musicology Philip Brett speculates that Britten's interest in the Orient was triggered by his homosexuality, and also suggests that the "gamelan is a gay marker in American music"; the latter proposition is independently supported by the preoccupation of Colin McPhee and Lou Harrison with the instrument. Another example of the gamelan as a "gay marker" is the use of gamelan sonorities as a leitmotif for adolescent boys in Britten's Death in Venice.

While living in New York Britten shared a house with Paul Bowles, who later became famous for the fiction he wrote while living in Tangiers. But a novel by another author, Leaving Tangiers by the Moroccan-born Tahar Ben Jelloun, takes a swipe at a thinly disguised Bowles in a passage describing an American writer and his wife (Bowles was bisexual) who want "the common people, young ones, healthy, preferably from the countryside, who can't read or write, serving them all day, then servicing them at night".

Above is a photo of a gamelan founded by Colin McPhee for village children in the 1930s. Mervyn Cooke describes the two weeks Britten spent in Bali as "a holiday from the punishing recital schedule". But despite his earlier exposure to Balinese music in New York, the island was not the obvious holiday destination for an overworked Western musician. However, as described above, Britten had spent time with Colin McPhee in New York, and McPhee's biographer Carol Oja reports that "several of [McPhee's] friends suggested that one of the appeals of Bali was its openness to homosexuality". This was presumably communicated to Britten, and Bali seems to have offered him a unique mix of creativity and sexuality, as this extract from a letter to Roger Duncan, a twelve year old who was one of Britten's most celebrated 'children', hints at:
... but what would have amused you was one Gamelan... made up of about thirty instruments, gongs, drums, xylophones, glockenspiels of all shapes & sizes - all played by little boys less than 14 years old.
The sexuality of celebrities has been newsworthy for many years, but coverage of the less mediagenic subject of musical colonialism is more recent. French composer and guitarist Titi Robin has spoken of "the economic, social and cultural order that reigns over the field of ‘world music’, that makes Western artists travel to countries in the East and the South that possess rich musical traditions. They collect music, repertories and musicians from there and return to fructify this godsend in the privileged world of the well-off West, where the art market is structured in a sufficiently rational manner to allow musicians to develop their careers and live off their art".

Britten and the Far East Mervyn Cooke describes The Prince of the Pagodas as being the composer's first work "to make use of specific oriental borrowings". Such "borrowing" was an accepted practice for many twentieth-century composers including Debussy and Puccini, and Britten extended the convention with Curlew River where he took a traditional Noh play set by a river in Tokyo, and replaced its Zen-Buddhist theme with a Christian storyline set by a river in East Anglia, see 1956 production photo above. And this colonial mindset seems to take on a darker side in another letter to Roger Duncan:
And so we go to Japan, I must say I don't want to, awfully. I don't like what I know about the country or the people I certainly don't like the way they look (the Yellow races look very strange & suspicious - whereas the Brown, the Indians, or Indonesians, look touching & sympathetic, & can be very beautiful) - and judging by the difficulty Peter & I had in getting our visas, they don't like me any more than I like them.
But charges of musical colonialism do not stand close scrutiny. In 1958 the Aldeburgh Festival included a pioneering recital by Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar), Nikhil Ghosh (tabla) and Ayana Deva Angadi (tamboura) in a programme of ragas coupled with traditional Indian dance by Srimati Rita. Unlikely paths cross here as the Aldeburgh concert was promoted by the Asian Music Circle which was formed in 1953 by the tamboua player at the recital Ayana Deva Angadi, who was also a political activist. George Harrison was taught to play the sitar by members of the Asian Music Circle and in September 1966 Harrison first met Ravi Shankar at the London house of Ayana Deva Angadi.

In 1965 there was a further recital of Indian music at Aldeburgh and in the same year Britten returned to the sub-continent for an extended holiday on the orders of his doctor; but the trip did not have the same creative impact on the ailing composer as his visit ten years earlier. Britten's passion for Indian music was also undoubtedly influenced by Imogen Holst who worked closely with him during this period. As recounted in an earlier post in 1951 Imogen Holst had spent two months studying the folk music of India and teaching at Rabindrath Tagore's Santiniketan University in West Bengal.

Above is a photo which appears in Britten and the Far East. In the book it is given the deadpan title "Britten's tour party in Balinese costume, 20 January 1956", but it also speaks eloquently of the two themes that dominate this post. However, although contextualisation is important it must not subordinate the music. The homoerotic and colonial aspects of Britten's passion for the Far East provide valuable context, but they must also be kept in perspective. His visits to Bali and Japan took place in 1955/6, when Britain was still a colonial power and attitudes to "yellow" and "brown" races were very different.

But in 1960 Harold Macmillan made his famous "Wind of Change" of speech which accelerated the process of decolonisation, and the same wind of change also blew across the Snape marshes. This year, as the Britten centenary approaches, it brings Jordi Savall's transcultural celebration
Mare Nostrum to the Aldeburgh Festival on June 23. Thankfully, what could seem "strange and suspicious" decades ago is now "touching, sympathetic and very beautiful".

* Britten centenary news - in May the beta version of a Britten 100 website will go live, and music organisations are being invited to share news of their own centenary events. The website will feature a database that will be the central clearing-house for information about performances during the centenary. The Britten 100 website will have its public launch on 22 November 2012. More information here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Britten and the Far East was supplied as a requested review sample. Header photo comes via Classic FM. Photo Photos 2, 5 and 6 are via Britten and the Far East, photo 4 is via Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Civic Center said…
Dear Pliable: In the 20th century, I'd say the worlds of Western music and Eastern music infiltrated each other about equally. It's just that the Western influence on Asian music tended to be in pop forms, while the Asian influence on Western music tended to appear more in the classical music world until The Beatles and George Martin changed everything.

I've been in gay scenes in third world countries over the decades that were fairly revolting because the main interactions seemed to be between older, wealthier Westerners and very young, poor "brown" people. Still, there were always exceptions to the rule, and I dare say Britten was one of them. For one thing, he wasn't into the exploitation anyone, of young people, of poor people, or of "brown" people.

Did his Asian 1950s tour enrich his musical language? Most definitely, and most of us still haven't absorbed it as Westerners. The "Prince of the Pagodas" and the Church Parables are astonishingly great, and the fact that I've never seen any of them live except for a bad local production of "Curlew River" just underlines how Britten's experiments still haven't quite been absorbed into the mainstream. They will, though.
Pliable said…
Mike, many thanks for that and your point of “Britten's experiments still haven't quite been absorbed into the mainstream” is worth developing.

Britten is a conundrum because his name is well known, but, as you rightly point out, many of his works are not. Which makes his centenary next year a particularly exciting opportunity.

All too often anniversaries are an opportunity for celebrities to tour musical war horses around the world, which is exactly what has happened in the Mahler celebrations. However, with the exception of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra the Britten anniversary, thankfully, presents few opportunities for celebrity showboating.

You wisely point out the importance of live performances, which resonates with Britten’s belief in the “holy triangle” of music making. Doubtless BBC Radio 3 and others will bring us wall to wall “Britten experiences”. But it is live music that is important, and particularly live music away from the world of expendable celebrities. For instance, here in Norfolk the Britten celebrations will include a combined schools choirs singing St Nicolas -, and hopefully this kind of event will take place around the world.

For once an anniversary represents a real opportunity for classical music. But only if the music takes priority over the usual media fuelled celebrity circus. Hopefully the Britten 100 website, which will feature a database that will provide a central clearing-house for information about performances during the centenary, will contribute to this -

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