The Britten Legacy
Program notes by Christine Noel
The rebirth of English music, inaugurated by the large-scale orchestral works of Edward Elgar and later championed by those of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Benjamin Britten, reinstated England as a leading musical nation that would rival its international counterparts. Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry, both professors at the Royal College of Music, were early leaders of this musical movement. Though neither achieved widespread international renown, their contributions to the English awakening were significant. They and their students, who include Holst, Frank Bridge (Britten’s teacher and early musical influence), and Vaughan Williams, sought to distance themselves from the modernist aesthetics of mainland composers and establish a distinctly national idiom. Gerald Finzi, influenced by Vaughan Williams and Holst, is associated with this idiom, though he also admired developing trends on the continent. Many of these composers believed that music was not intended only for the elite but that it should be reflective of national identity and values, and made available to all. The movement valued the collection, preservation, and arranging of folk songs, and gave birth to the emergence of choral societies (many of which now included women) and to the inclusion of music education in public and private schools.
As Benjamin Britten helped to fortify the English revival, he distinguished himself from his predecessors in his leaning toward European modernism with more “advanced” techniques. Though his own writing never reached the avant-garde level explored by the dodecaphonists, he criticized many of his fellow British composers for their lyricism, simplicity, and “pastoral” writing. He found Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka “inspiring,” and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen “a lesson to all of the Elgars … in the world.” Upon learning of Alban Berg’s death, he remarked “the real musicians are so few & far between, aren’t they? Apart from the Bergs, Stravinskys, Schönbergs & Bridges, one is a bit stumped for names, isn’t one?”
By age 21, Britten’s acclaim as a composer had reached an international scale following a contemporary music festival in Florence. The same year, Boosey & Hawkes negotiated an exclusive contract to publish his works and offered a regular stipend. In 1935 his employment with a film company led to association with a new circle of forward-thinking artists and writers with whom he quickly became friends. Among these new influences was poet W.H. Auden, who challenged Britten’s aesthetic goals and encouraged him to broaden his intellectual and political horizons. On a personal level, Auden and others in his new circle advised Britten to acknowledge and come to terms with his sexual orientation, though most of his friends felt that he was never completely at peace with it. This personal struggle and his political (pacifist) views became an important source for artistic expression.
Britten lived and composed in North America from 1939-1942. Several factors contributed to his move, including his disappointment in the British musical scene, political turmoil in Europe, criticism of his work, and the need to redefine his path as a composer. Though music composed during this time was reflective of his emotional turbulence, it was a prolific period for his work. Influenced by the Copland model, he aspired to return to Britain and assume a new role of national composer, which would mean supplanting Vaughan Williams. This would require him to venture into new genres and offer significant contributions to the British music repertory, while still retaining his distinct musical character. Choral works, Hymn to St. Cecilia and Rejoice in the Lamb soon followed. Upon Britten’s return to his homeland, his success in opera composition (a genre in which Vaughan Williams was unsuccessful) led to the eventual surpassing of his rival in the struggle for preeminence as British composer.
Britten’s music was often imbued with his personal struggle and feelings of oppression, along with political statements that challenged conventional thinking. His early orchestral song cycle, Our Hunting Fathers (1936), was considered radical in its choice of texts, which serve as a parable for the growing political unrest of Europe, and in its musical language and challenge to the players. His crowning choral-orchestral work, the War Requiem, offers expressions of pacifism on a monumental scale. Britten’s style is innovative and his language inimitable, without approaching extreme modernism to the alienation of his audience. A versatile composer, his output includes orchestral, vocal, and choral works, along with repertoire for film, radio, and theatre. His revival of English opera, beginning with the great success of Peter Grimes (1945), and his commitment to music education for children (Noye’s Fludde, Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), also contributes to his enduring impact. Britten found a way to write inventive music while always remaining accessible to professionals and amateurs alike. This far-reaching influence solidified his reputation as leading British composer of the twentieth century, and secured the permanence of the Britten legacy.