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"Britten's Endgame"


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Dundonnell
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« on: November 16, 2013, 03:34:52 pm »

On Thursday evening BBC Four broadcast a two hour documentary about Benjamin Britten's last years of life and composition.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03hj038

I watched the programme last night. We have been harsh about the BBC and its coverage of "classical music" on this forum but one wonders where else in the world such an extended programme would be shown on TV Huh

I have made no secret that, although I enjoy early Britten(in particular the Sinfonia da Requiem and the Violin Concerto), later Britten I find difficult. Nor have I ever come to terms with Britten's dismissive attitude towards most British composers of an earlier generation or indeed his contemporaries. Britten's "private life" and his emotional life have been of little interest to me.

There were aspects of the documentary which seemed-at first-to be intrusive and overly personal. I asked myself whether it was necessary for his cardiologist to discuss so openly the nature of the composer's heart condition, or for Britten's precise relationship with Peter Pears to be examined so intimately.

I have to concede however that I found the programme not only powerful but profoundly moving. Through the contributions of composers like Colin and David Matthews, Michael Berkeley and Mark-Anthony Turnage and so many of Britten's friends a proper understanding of the late music began to emerge. These later compositions, like "Death in Venice", "Phaedra" and the String Quartet No.3 cannot be appreciated without such in depth insight into the composer's declining health, his knowledge of his approaching death and the relationship with Pears. As both Colin and David Matthews and Turnage said, the late music is not comfortable or easy listening yet they ARE profoundly meaningful in the context of these last years,

The BBC has broadcast superb documentaries on composers like RVW, Holst and Malcolm Arnold-all composers whose music I actually prefer to Britten's-yet this was the film which I found most moving and affecting.

If you live in the UK and did not watch the programme then I urge you to watch on BBC IPlayer. I am sure that it will become available in time in other parts of the world. It was BBC broadcasting at its most glorious best and a quite wonderful documentary.

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« Reply #1 on: November 16, 2013, 05:23:13 pm »

The programme has to-day been broadcast in Australia too (where there is of course no system of licence fees). People may watch it at this link until the end of the month:

http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/60512323520/Brittens-Endgame

Yes, as Dundonnell indicates, many composers were there to give their presumably authoritative reactions to Britten's late music. I will certainly benefit from watching Death in Venice again now that I have heard all the profound psychological points that were discussed.

In regard to the quartet, several of the people interviewed drew their breath in and made comments like "Oh how moving it is I can hardly bear to listen" where for me it did precisely nothing. Turnage was one such, Berkeley too, and one of the ladies did the same. I suppose this must be my lack; I never seem to have got to grips with Britten's music.

I also agree that the contributions of the cardiologist were unnecessary and disagreeable. The details of the relationship with Pears on the other hand I did find fascinating. I would not have believed that they could still be exchanging such letters after such a span of time had the letters not been shown on the screen! Perhaps I might note here that when I was a form-four student as long ago as 1953 the nature of the relationship between Britten and Pears was already well known and often discussed among the more musical of my classmates.
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SerAmantiodiNicolao
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« Reply #2 on: November 16, 2013, 09:42:07 pm »


I have made no secret that, although I enjoy early Britten(in particular the Sinfonia da Requiem and the Violin Concerto), later Britten I find difficult.

Having not seen the documentary, I can only respond to this in a vacuum, as it were.

I, too, find late Britten difficult.  It's immeasurably thornier than his earlier work.  The one opera of his I loathe (Owen Wingrave) is a late work.  The thing is, I find there's a great deal to like in many of the late pieces (Death in Venice comes to mind, as you've mentioned it - that in particular begins transporting me somewhere about the twenty-minute mark, and I invariably end up taken in by its power.)  The one caveat: I've never liked (with one exception) any of Britten's independent orchestral music.  Conversely, with the exception of Wingrave (and the early Paul Bunyan), I love just about every note of his vocal music I've heard.

I think what I've always responded to best in Britten is his word-setting.  Few composers have had such an incredible command of the English language, to me - few have set it as brilliantly on so many occasions.  Couple that with a sense of drama that responded well to conflict, and you have what works so well for me in his work.

I find that the Britten operas that work worst for me are the ones in which he takes a position of certainty when dealing with his characters and doesn't leave it.  Consider Wingrave: war is bad and peace is good and that's all there is to it, and there's no attempt to make the warmongering Wingraves (for lack of a better word) sympathetic.  Britten may attempt to set up a conflict on paper, but his heart's not in it - Owen is right and the others are wrong.  End.  Full stop.  His characters work so much better when they suffer a conflict that's not easily resolved - Grimes (is he a monster or misunderstood?), Elizabeth in Gloriana (the conflict of love and duty), Vere in Billy Budd (duty again), Aschenbach.  He doesn't take sides with any of them; that's what makes the operas work so.  (Not fully; Gloriana in particular has its flaws.)

Or perhaps I'm just overthinking this?  Granted, I don't know all the operas, so my opinion may be somewhat ill-informed.
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #3 on: November 16, 2013, 11:55:58 pm »

Can I ask what it is about the orchestral music you dislike and which is the one exception Huh
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kyjo
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« Reply #4 on: November 17, 2013, 12:38:20 am »

Regarding not the documentary but my opinion of Britten:

Britten is a strange situation for me. Like Colin, I consider the VC, the Sinfonia da requiem and the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes to be among the greatest works of the 20th century and find them very moving. But, aside from the Frank Bridge Variations and the Young Person's Guide, little else by Britten moves me. I find much of his music, especially the later works, to be rather "cold". I've read opinions from various sources that "Britten was the greatest English composer since Purcell", with which I strongly disagree. I hold Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton, Rubbra, Arnold, Bantock, Bate, Arnell, Parry, and Alwyn all in higher regard than Britten.
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jimfin
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« Reply #5 on: November 17, 2013, 09:48:23 am »

What a wonderful lot of opinions: Britten's not someone we much discuss on here, being rather 'sung', but I relate to a lot of these opinions. Later Britten is definitely more difficult, but I have come to like a lot of it: yes, Death in Venice is amazing, though it took me a while to get into. Owen Wingrave I agree is pretty awful: all those "how dare you!"s and the simplistic to the point of meaningless dealing with pacifism, so unworthy of the man who wrote a character as rounded as Peter Grimes.

I also want to know what the one exception is. I like some of the orchestral music, but generally find it far from his best medium. I have never been able to understand the Cello Symphony, though I keep thinking that one day it will suddenly speak to me, like Walton's 2nd Symphony did.

And yes, Britten's attitude to other British composers is a bit distressing. Later he came to appreciate Elgar (I love his Gerontius, less so his choice of tenor soloist in it), and I'm sure he would have 'got' Vaughan Williams one day: they had far more in common than Britten realised. I think he became more British over the years: pre-war you have a rebel, a cosmopolitan composer wanting to ignore British music, but when he was in America he seems to have discovered his Englishness. He was remarkable competitive with other composers, ridiculously so, when he was always feted above everyone else.
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jimfin
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« Reply #6 on: November 17, 2013, 09:49:58 am »

Do we all know this rather wonderful bit of Flanders and Swann?

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=flanders+and+swann+guide+to+britten&sm=3

Impressive that an audience could be expected to get it. I doubt you'd get the same with a Guide to Ades these days.
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #7 on: November 17, 2013, 07:02:59 pm »

Do we all know this rather wonderful bit of Flanders and Swann?

I'd never heard it until now - thank you for this witty little piece Smiley
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SerAmantiodiNicolao
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« Reply #8 on: November 18, 2013, 12:00:10 am »

Can I ask what it is about the orchestral music you dislike and which is the one exception Huh

The one exception is the Young Person's Guide - I've tried a handful of his other orchestral works (mostly concertante pieces), but they've always felt...pointless, for lack of a better term.  One of the things I most appreciate in much of Britten's vocal work is the narrative arc he brings to whatever text he chooses to set.  That's always been lacking in the orchestral pieces I've heard.  Perhaps I need to try others - I will say that the ones I've heard have left me with scant desire to explore further.

And yes, Britten's attitude to other British composers is a bit distressing. Later he came to appreciate Elgar (I love his Gerontius, less so his choice of tenor soloist in it), and I'm sure he would have 'got' Vaughan Williams one day: they had far more in common than Britten realised.

I think he may have done so without realizing it.  Last night I attended a performance of the War Requiem (Baltimore Symphony, U-MD chorus, Peabody children's chorus, Tamara Wilson, Ryan McKinney, and Nicholas Pham under Marin Alsop), a piece which I do not know well.  This was actually my first live performance of the work, and I was struck by many things, including some passages in the first movement that reminded me of Vaughan Williams.  I can't say which ones, exactly - I'm not familiar enough with the score.  But they struck me as an unconscious reflection - I don't believe there was anything intentional in them.

Proof, perhaps, that Britten was more attuned to certain aspects of his musical environment than he would let on?
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jimfin
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« Reply #9 on: November 18, 2013, 12:07:53 am »

Britten certainly had a lot in common with Vaughan Williams, whom he even studied under, but he clearly didn't want to admit it. Had he lived to 70 or 80 he may have been more honest with himself. He accompanied a fine 'On Wenlock Edge'; both men loved folksong, working with real musicians, writing for amateurs, wrote in every conceivable genre and founded a musical festival. Britten worked with Imogen Holst, more or less an honorary niece of VW. He definitely picked up bits from people like her: chamber operas, which most people think Britten invented, were written by Gustav Holst; 'Noyes Fludde' is very like Boughton's 'Bethlehem', as Britten worked with Boughton's daughter Joyce. 'Peter Grimes' has an awful lot of similarities to 'The Wreckers', though I can't a direct link between Britten and Smyth...
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #10 on: November 18, 2013, 01:16:28 am »

What comes over very strongly in the recent documentaries about Britten(of which "Britten's Endgames" was but one) is the man's fundamental insecurity. Despite being feted during his lifetime-or at least the last couple of decades of his life-as the leading British composer Britten lived in a constant fear of a number of different things: that he was running out of ideas, that he was being overtaken by the new "avant-garde"(who regarded his music with derision), that his declining health would lead to an inability to compose at all, and, of course, the demons that clearly were with him all the time: his inner feeling of guilt and shame regarding his feelings towards young men/boys.

It was this prickly insecurity that led him to fall out with a number of former friends, whilst retaining the love and admiration of many others. Like many other young composers he did espouse an apparent contempt for many of the older generation of British composers and for many of his contemporaries, whilst, as has been said, clearly being influenced by them(consciously or subconsciously). Britten claimed to have no time for either Beethoven or Brahms Roll Eyes

As a teenager in the early-mid 1960's I and my musically-minded friends divided the composers with whose music we were familiar into opposing camps: Sibelius v. Nielsen, Elgar v. RVW, Walton v. Britten. In such contests I sided with Walton, partly, I suspect, because he had become the underdog, driven into exile in Ischia(as I perceived it) by the Britten regime and his followers.

Time has passed however and I can now listen to Britten's music much more objectively. I am not an opera-lover and therefore a hugely important part of Britten's music is shut off to me-although the Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes" are so incredibly and powerfully evocative(I have visited Aldeburgh and reached some appreciation of how much that Suffolk landscape and coastline meant to the composer). The Cello Symphony is simply too complex for my understanding. But, as I remarked before, the Sinfonia da Requiem is such a powerful, shattering, yet moving composition. The Violin Concerto is, in my opinion, an absolute masterpiece and its last ten minutes so heartbreakingly beautiful that I cannot listen without emotion. As the Violin sings higher yet higher above the plucked strings of the orchestra the music is both gorgeously beautiful and majestic. It stands, in my judgment, alongside the Shostakovich Violin Concertos, as amongst the greatest of the 2oth century. The "Young Person's Guide" is an orchestral tour de force and the return of Purcell's theme in full orchestral splendour at the end one of the great moments in music. I have come to like works like the Serenade for Tenor and Horn, "Les Illuminations" and the Nocturne.

As I get older I hope that my musical taste has "matured" enough to recognise that my youthful dismissal of Britten was callow and naive and that music-all music-should be listened to with a more open mind, seeking out the good, the inspired. (Who knows......Rachmaninov and Delius one day Grin)
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Greg K
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« Reply #11 on: November 19, 2013, 01:12:57 am »

Very nice reflections from everyone here, - informed, personal, and discriminating, rather than the
trivial, generic, or academic we sometimes inflict on one another (but no one can give of their best
on every occasion).  A stand-out discussion, - so far, that is Shocked.  Thanks.



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kyjo
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« Reply #12 on: November 19, 2013, 01:57:14 am »

Very nice reflections from everyone here, - informed, personal, and discriminating, rather than the
trivial, generic, or academic we sometimes inflict on one another (but no one can give of their best
on every occasion).  A stand-out discussion, - so far, that is Shocked.  Thanks.

"Trivial", "generic", and "academic" are not words I would use to describe any conversations that have taken place here (except the ones connecting politics and music, which I despise)! Shocked Could you please be a little more specific, Greg?! Huh

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Dundonnell
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« Reply #13 on: November 19, 2013, 02:35:19 am »

I shall simply thank Greg for his first few words and his last Smiley Grin
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #14 on: November 19, 2013, 02:47:08 am »

I loved the story told of Britten:

"Britten was once asked to identify the difference between his new opera, The Turn of the Screw, and his opera of 1946, The Rape of Lucretia. ‘The title is different, and the story’, replied Britten. ‘Oh yes, of course, but the music, Mr Britten – what would you say was the difference between the music of The Rape of Lucretia and The Turn of the Screw?’  Britten then barked: ‘The notes are the same, but they are in a different order.’ "
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