A personal history of Britten

It’s overstating things a bit, but I owe my existence to Benjamin Britten. Not directly, I concede, unless my parents and the Britten Estate have been keeping a sensational secret from me; but it is probably accurate to surmise that if my mother hadn’t taken part in a performance of Noye’s Fludde in her mid-teens and switched to A-level Music as a result, she wouldn’t have applied to study the subject at university, she wouldn’t have met my father, and, several years down the line, I wouldn’t have been born. So the guy’s got a lot to answer for.

I’ve been doing my bit to repay the debt I owe Britten by spending a lot of my adult life getting to know his music. My acquaintance of Britten in childhood was fleeting but vivid. When I was about five my father, a teacher by profession, conducted a performance of Noye’s Fludde in a local church, which I attended. I don’t recall it particularly vividly, but I know that the music of Sem, Ham and Jaffett’s song, ‘Father, I am all readye bowne’, stayed in my head long afterwards.

A year or two later, at school, my teacher Miss Loveridge used the first Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes in a Music and Movement class. (Either that or as music played to welcome children filing into morning assembly, which I believe was on weekly rotation; but that seems unlikely given the norm was Semprini playing popular classics.) I fell utterly in love with the music, to the extent that I badgered my mother to ask Miss Loveridge what it was (that I had the nerve to ask her myself seems unlikely). I bought or was given a tape of the Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Grimes and the Sinfonia da Requiem played by the RLPO and Libor Pešek, though I only got to know the Interludes.

When I did A-level Music myself, we used the marvellous London Anthology (now sadly no more; it was revised the following year to enable pupils to study Carl Perkins and the music from E.T.), and the set of extracts allocated to us included part of the mad scene from Act 3 of Peter Grimes, opening at ‘To hell with all your mercy!’ and ending with the spoken dialogue where Balstrode tells Grimes to sail out and sink his boat. By some way it was the most emotionally gutting piece we studied. Jessie Taylor and I sat side by side in G12 while Mrs Shaw put on the Britten/Pears recording of the extract, and we listened along with the score. At the end there was a stunned silence. A piece of music had never made me feel quite like that before.

'I hear those voices that will not be drowned'

‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’

Later that year, I went on a residential course for A-level Music students at Villiers Park in Middleton Stoney, just outside Bicester. It was exciting to meet people with passions similar to mine. I had a great time doing two-piano improvisations with a boy called John. We stayed in touch, writing each other occasional letters (this sounds improbable, but I suspect we were both old-fashioned; I didn’t get email until 2001), and eventually reunited at university. A trip to an Oxford Bach Choir concert at the Sheldonian Theatre was organised as part of the course. Among other items the choir sang Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, a magical discovery for me. We all studied the piece closely beforehand, and afterwards wrote reviews of the concert. Mine was voted worthy of submission for publication in a local news sheet (and still exists online, though modesty and shame forbid my linking to it here).

In summer 2001 I played the piano duet (with my mother) in another production of Noye’s Fludde, conducted by my father in the inaugural Frome Festival. Everything seems to come back to Noye with me.

I’ll be singing the Choral Dances from Gloriana, the Five Flower Songs and the Te Deum and Jubilate in a concert in this year’s Frome Festival. I’m so pleased to be taking part in an event, however small, that is listed on the Britten 100 website. It’s a brilliant resource for finding performances of Britten’s works, among other things, and I hope it may continue in some fashion after the centenary year is up.

If it hadn’t been for the website I wouldn’t have happened upon a performance of The Little Sweep in Norwich last month, which it was a great pleasure to attend. I haven’t set myself a specific Britten-related mission this year, but I certainly intend to see some of the operas I don’t know that well. I’ve already seen a student production of The Rape of Lucretia that was quite superb, and will be seeing Gloriana later in the year, and The Burning Fiery Furnace, one of my favourite Britten works and one that is all too seldom performed. I’m also hopeful of my first Screw since June 2009 (and my third in total).

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently listening to unfamiliar Britten works and recordings, among which I have found many treasures, but they can wait for another post.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Responses to “A personal history of Britten”

  1. FromSwedenProduction (@fromswedenprods) Says:

    Great article, thanks. FYI – BBC Proms 2013 is featuring an anticipated World Premiere by Britten, Elegy for Strings, performed by leading Swedish string ensemble Camerata Nordica in an all-British programme on the 31st of August 2013 @ Cadogan Hall, London. More info can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2013/august-31/14724

  2. Gareth Says:

    I’ll be away at that time so unable to attend, but it looks great. I’ll try and listen to it on the radio. I certainly intend to go to some of the Britten items at the Proms this year. The song recital at the end of July including A Charm of Lullabies and the Songs from the Chinese particularly appeals to me.

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