By this, I mean this post will have a number of diverse topics, all held together loosely by a through-thread of being at least tangentially related to Benjamin Britten, who would have been 100 this year, had he still been alive.
I have not actually heard all that much Britten live, or at least not many of his substantial works. (The way I file concert programs is by the main pieces, so if the program included an overture by Britten and a symphony or concerto by another composer, it would be filed under the second name. Indeed, the only major work that I know I've seen live was Britten's Violin Concerto by the VSO back in Feb. and this program still gets filed under Elgar's Enigma Variations. Indeed, this was one of the stronger concerts I've seen them do.)
I had thought that I would have seen more Britten this year had I still been in Chicago, but it looks as if the CSO only did the War Requiem (which received very mixed reviews, so I am not really that sorry to have missed it). Some chamber music was done at separate festivals (perhaps in Hyde Park). It's so odd that I read (occasionally) that Britten can lay claim to being the most important British composer of the 20th Century. He really doesn't do that much for me, and I would definitely rate Vaughan Williams and his symphony cycle over Britten. But I suppose for people who love opera there is no comparison, and they tend to argue that writing operas is a higher form of music than symphonies. One of my (dark) secrets is that I loathe opera. I tried several times to go and soak it in, particularly because a UT professor (Linda Hutcheon) loved it and made it possible for us to see several operas at a major discount. But I can simply never get away from how distorted the voices, particularly the female ones, are, almost always sacrificing clarity and communication for odd vocal effects. The transmission of meaning is far below the musicality of the phrases.
As it happens, Vancouver Opera is doing 4 performances of Britten's Albert Herring (a comic opera set in an English village). One performance is tonight and the rest are next weekend. Part of me feels I should go, since this is such a rare opportunity. The larger, more sensible side of me says I would hate it, since I always hate opera. And indeed, it just so happens that BBC Radio 3 broadcast the entire performance of Albert Herring for the Opera on 3 program. (Last day is today, or I would provide a link.) Sure enough, despite the fact that the words are even in English, I can't understand what the women are singing, and I find the whole thing baroque and distasteful. I thought a bit more of Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice (some excerpts were on composer of the week, but it is almost certainly because male and children's voices were featured), but I can still tell it would be agony for me to sit through an entire performance of either. I don't even care that much for his War Requiem, and that is far more restrained. I would be pretty surprised if I ever do make it to a performance of the Requiem (perhaps if I were given the tickets...).
So if you completely discount all the vocal works and opera, then Britten clearly is behind Vaughan Williams, though he still wrote some classic works for cello (often premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich (whom I just missed seeing conduct in Chicago, as he passed away shortly before his scheduled concert)) and 3 string quartets.
Sometimes you get second chances when it comes to hearing chamber music, and then you have to grab them. I honestly cannot remember if I saw the Takacs Quartet earlier this year (January) playing Britten's String Quartet #3. They are on my calendar, but with a big question mark (and I have not unearthed the corresponding program). I would have just been back from TRB and may not have wanted to abandon the family so soon. (I think Monday or Tuesday, I'll actually call the Friends of Chamber Music and see if they still have my order on file.) Still, it is looking like I gave this a miss, which is a shame, as they have become first-rate Britten interpreters. However, the Takacs Quartet is back in town Sunday afternoon, and I have recovered enough to sit through this concert.* They are not playing Britten, however, but Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok (Quartet #2). It looks like Bartok is back in vogue, and I'll see three of his string quartets this season. As far as Britten goes, there is a special concert in February where all 3 of his string quartets will be performed. I'm pretty sure I will go to this, though it looks like it will mean a late night out on a school night. (I also can pick up a CD of Tackas playing all three quartets if it means that much to me...)
One of the somewhat annoying thing about the move to these massive classical box sets is that you can potentially end up with a lot of overlap with other things you own. Also, you end up with the core repertoire over and over. (I'm not even sure how many Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles I own, though with different conductor and orchestras at least.) In any case, I had a few small, focused box sets of Carlo Giulini conducting U.S.-based orchestras. Then this year, EMI opened the vaults again and put out this massive box of almost everything Giulini recorded in London. The problem for me is that, while he is recording with a different orchestra, he covered the same repertoire! I went through the contents pretty carefully, and as far as I can tell, the only major pieces that I didn't already have were Dvorak Symphony 7 (which was available to stream on-line) and Britten's Four Sea Intervals from Peter Grimes. While these are interesting pieces, I can hardly justify buying a huge box set just for 20 minutes or so worth of music! As it happens I recently recorded Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in these pieces, so I think I'm covered for now. (And while I am not buying any tickets that far out, the VSO will be doing the Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, along with Respighi's Pines of Rome, in June.)
Now another important thing about Britten is that he was in a relationship with Peter Pears, who sang in virtually all the operas Britten wrote, but that Britten also apparently struggled with his attraction to young boys. This is sort of alluded to the composer of the week programs once they get around to discussing The Turn of the Screw, and it became an even bigger issue in Death in Venice. As I was listening to the clips, I flashed back to Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art, which I saw this summer. They had a young boy up in the rafters practicing for some opera, and he sounded quite a bit like the bits from Turn of the Screw. The bulk of The Habit of Art focuses on what it means to be an aging artist, delivering a uncomfortable portrait of Auden in decline. However, in the second act, Britten breezes in and talks about his difficulties in his work on Death in Venice. He's still a celebrity, touring the world, but he no longer seems as sure of himself, and there are hints that 1) the public won't accept his move into atonality for Death in Venice and 2) his interest in young boys may cause trouble. Auden definitely warns him that he is courting trouble, though it seems in real life Britten kept any urges under control. (While I think the company did a good job, I suspect that they should have found a slightly older actor to play Britten, as this one seemed fairly chipper -- and not like a 60 year old with a heart condition that nearly killed him as he was writing Death in Venice!) No question this dramatization really put this information about Auden and Britten into my head in a way that just reading about it or hearing it alluded to in the radio programs did not. As it happens, The Habit of Art is a multi-level play, with the actors putting on a play about Auden and Britten. This works for me, but certainly confused many in the audience, even after it had been spelled out in the hand-out. I think there is always this tension between doing something interesting for oneself (as a writer or even performer, slightly bored with conventional theatre) and not making things too complicated for audiences, who are increasingly shallow and trained to prefer linear narratives.
Just last week I saw Except in the Unlikely Event of War, which has two different time periods (1960s and 2010s) and three different sets of characters, including meta-level characters (the actors play themselves grumbling about being in a play that isn't political enough!). There is no question it was better seeing this in performance with video-- and costume changes! -- that helped me follow along, rather than catching it as a staged reading back in April. Still, a lot of the audience was very confused. And while the meta-theatrical parts were often the funniest (and presumably most fun to play), I wonder if they were really necessary, or if they just detracted from the core message. Not sure about that. Well, that is indeed pretty far from Britten, and I am not sure I can find my way back, other than Britten was quite political in his own way, being a pacifist during the ramp-up to WWII. In fact, both Auden and Britten (and Christopher Isherwood and Peter Pears) all left England for the U.S. in 1939. Britten and Pears return to the U.K. in 1942, registering as conscientious objectors, which caused trouble for them for a number of years, but his obvious talents wore down any lingering resentments in his native country. Still, his overt homosexuality became a problem in the 1950s when there was a wave of repression led by Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe.
Britten was an extreme example of the single-minded artist, who sacrificed many friendships to art and who often discarded people who were no longer useful to him. I understand this tendency to be so devoted to work, as well as to think about people instrumentally and have to fight it myself (probably not all that successfully). He truly was one of the most important English composers of all time, and I will try to listen to a wider range of his work in his centenary year. (I just wish he hadn't written quite so much choral stuff along with 15 or so operas!)
* Just back from the Takacs Quartet. After watching them for a while, I am now convinced that I did make it to see them back in Jan. I'm having trouble verifying this, however, since I ordered the tickets by phone (so no email trail), and I've switched credit card companies, so I can't tell exactly when the order was processed. I did email Friends of Chamber Music to see if they had it on record. Ideally, the concert program will turn up, which would certainly settle the matter.