I’ve been told that if you ask German classical musicians to name the greatest English composer, they’re likely to reply “Benjamin Britten.” They respect his mastery of every form and his connection to great Romantics in their own tradition.
Ask an English musician, and he’s likely to say – well, here comes an English musician now. Let’s ask him. Christopher Warren-Green?
“You couldn’t really say his music is popular in the way the early Vaughan Williams symphonies are,” says the Charlotte Symphony’s music director. “He never had a single piece that was an extraordinary success, grabbing a place in popular culture the way Holst’s ‘Planets’ did.
“But I don’t know of any other composer who had such incredible knowledge of each instrument he wrote for. Everyone in the orchestra will tell you that his music lies under the hand. He understood all the tone colors so well.”
The 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth is Nov. 22. The Charlotte Symphony will celebrate his centenary in ways that are splashy – including his “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in the opening Classics concert this weekend – sensuous (Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”) and subtle: Alan Black will play Britten’s cadenza to Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 later in the season, and we’ll hear Britten’s arrangement of a chaconne by Henry Purcell. (I wouldn’t be surprised to get Britten encores, too, especially excerpts from his infectious Simple Symphony.)
My first music appreciation course in college ended with Britten. (He died in 1976, three years later.) The teacher billed him as “one of the most accessible living composers,” grouping him with Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and other melodically inclined old-timers.
He and Vaughan Williams remain the only two British composers to score significant successes in every genre: orchestral works, operas, sacred music, songs, chamber and instrumental pieces. In fact, the masterpieces we’re not hearing in Charlotte this year may be more significant than the ones we are.
No one is producing “ Peter Grimes,” the most moving English-language opera I know from the last 75 years. (Anthony Dean Griffey, a noted Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera, will sing the tenor lead in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” in March for Opera Carolina. Maybe a deal can be reached.)
No one is performing the War Requiem, the most emotionally probing requiem written during that same period. Britten combined sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead with harrowing poems by Wilfred Owen, a British poet killed while serving in World War I. The piece premiered in 1962 and marked the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral; the original 14th-century structure had been destroyed by Nazi bombs.
“I have been trying to program the requiem for a long time,” says Warren-Green. “That’s challenging repertoire. So this year, I’ve put in his more popular works … in the hope that I can lead (audiences) toward the War Requiem. And the Violin Concerto is a stunning masterwork. I think I’ve found the right soloist (Karen Gomyo) – she’s coming to play Saint-Saens this season – but you have to be careful if you program it for audiences that don’t know Britten.”
Warren-Green met Britten, who was a sensitive pianist and rigorous conductor, when he sang as a young chorister in his works: “He was a very good conductor but had a short fuse if things didn’t go right. His effect on me came much later, when I was a 21-year-old concertmaster in the BBC Welsh Symphony. We went to Dresden for a co-production with the Dresden Philharmonic, to play the War Requiem in a cathedral that had been destroyed in the World War II firestorm. People were in tears.”
Maybe that’s the main thing that makes Britten great: He’s intellectually satisfying to musicians and emotionally satisfying to audiences. You can admire the intricacy and cleverness of his Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge or simply be swept away by its beauty.
Things that may have seemed alien to audiences on first hearing – say, the otherworldly glissandi at the opening of his opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – now seem natural. Britten can be spiky or spare, and I find some of his later operas arid and monochromatic. But he’s never impersonal or far from deep feelings.
If you’re starting out with Britten, begin with the “ Young Person’s Guide” (also known as “Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell,” because it adapts music Purcell wrote for the play “Abdelazer”). Then try the Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings, a mini-masterpiece in nine minutes. His youthful Simple Symphony, with movement titles such as “Boisterous Bouree” and “Playful Pizzicato,” will give you an idea of his sense of humor.
If you really get carried away, you can visit Aldeburgh, the coastal town in Southeastern England where he started a music festival in 1948 with tenor Peter Pears (his longtime partner) and librettist Eric Crozier. You could even stay in the Lowestoft house where he was born, which is now a bed-and-breakfast. Warren-Green did that some years ago.
“It was extraordinary to be there, staring out at the sea,” he says. “I was conducting the Royal Philharmonic, and I asked if I could sleep in Britten’s boyhood bedroom. That really backfired on me, because I was haunted by Britten’s ghost. I didn’t sleep a wink all night.”
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