A Britten XI

In 1958 the writer on music and cricket Neville Cardus (I mean he wrote on music and cricket, not that he wrote on music and was a cricket) published a new edition of his 1945 book Ten Composers. The revision was called A Composers Eleven. (He couldn’t bear to leave out Bruckner.) As the Britten centenary year comes to its close, I thought it might be nice to have a Britten Eleven too, before the year is out. The cricketing connotation would have appealed to Britten, perpetual sportsman and, lest we forget, one-time Victor Ludorum at South Lodge Prep School that he was. To which end, here’s a list of eleven Britten works — some acknowledged masterpieces, some more obscure — that I wouldn’t gladly be without, with illustrative examples.

1. Simple Symphony, Op. 4 (1934)
It’s true that Britten didn’t have much of a sense of humour about himself, but he was more than capable of writing and performing light and humorous music. Look at his arrangements of Rossini, the Cabaret Songs, those peerless recordings of Grainger. This early work is constructed from music he wrote as a young boy. The fast movements fizz with life, but the sarabande has a serene, stately beauty. It harks back to an earlier time, like the Air from Grieg’s Holberg Suite.

2. Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 (1943)
A special piece to me, that opened my eyes to Britten’s genius in my teens. I was bowled over by its vibrancy. It’s generally acknowledged that the libretti of Britten’s operas are of variable quality, but he was second to none in his choice of already existing texts. The Christopher Smart poem excerpted here is weird and wonderful, and occasionally deeply poignant.

3. Peter Grimes, Op. 33 (1945)
Another work I discovered in schooldays. I already knew and loved a small number of operas, but I hadn’t realised before that opera was capable of a power this thrillingly visceral, both in the huge crowd scenes and in the desperate loneliness of Grimes’ final soliloquy. What mastery of drama Britten had. The Interludes and Passacaglia somehow possess an entirely different power when performed independently, as they often are.

4. A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41 (1947)
Probably my favourite of Britten’s song cycles. It’s an unlikely but ingenious mix of texts — Blake, Burns, Robert Greene, Thomas Randolph and John Phillip — five cradle songs of differing levels of twistedness. The Randolph setting seethes with barely suppressed violence, the Blake and Phillip both possess a tender fragility. It’s also nice, given the extent to which the tenor voice of Peter Pears dominates his compositional output, to listen to something Britten wrote for the female voice. I wish he had written more.

5. Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 (1948)
I love Britten’s other stage works for children, Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep, but this, an episodic telling of the story of Saint Nicolas, with tenor soloist, orchestra, piano duet and children’s choir, incorporating two congregational hymns, is the most satisfying musically, and in its way quite perfect. Highlights include Nicolas’ birth and his revival of the three pickled boys.

6. Five Flower Songs, Op. 47 (1950)
A recent discovery, which I sang with my choir this summer. The best way to get to know a piece of music may be from inside. That was the case with Grimes, which I sang in at university. I knew bits of it already, but my acquaintance with the work as a whole started with the music for chorus and grew gradually around it. It was like that with the beautiful but elusive Flower Songs, like A Charm of Lullabies a sequence of five settings of texts from various sources — Herrick (2), Crabbe, Clare, and a traditional ballad. I didn’t study them, I just got stuck in with the singing.

7. Billy Budd, Op. 50 (1951)
I’ve seen Billy Budd performed live before, and performed well, but it wasn’t until seeing the filmed Glyndebourne production this year that I felt genuinely gripped. It’s a masterpiece, brutal and tender by turns, and occasionally simultaneously, something it has in common with Britten’s other great stage works, and huge in scope.

8. The Turn of the Screw, Op. 54 (1954)
The novella by Henry James that forms the basis of this chamber opera is notoriously difficult to adapt. Most translations into different media seem to attempt to make explicit the evil that in the book is so nebulous in nature, and thereby fail. Britten succeeds brilliantly, and moreover couches his telling of the story in an ingenious and exhilarating theme-and-variations structure, with elements of serialism. The opera gains something impalpable from this formality. It is genuinely eerie.

9. Missa brevis, Op. 63 (1959)
Living in Cambridge, I am surrounded by choral music. I imagine that the city constitutes probably the most concentrated hub of great choirs in the world. More than anything else, what draws me to chapel services is the music, and it is always a privilege to hear the choir of King’s or John’s sing this exciting Mass setting, written for the boys of Westminster Cathedral. The gentle, bitonal canonic setting of the Benedictus is a favourite.

10. Folk song arrangements, Volume 5 (1961)
One of the bodies of Britten’s work that gives me continual pleasure is his series of arrangements of British, Irish and French folk songs. Almost without fail he identifies the vital essence of the song and encapsulates it in his arrangement – the jokey poignancy of ‘The foggy, foggy dew’, the tart flippancy of ‘Oliver Cromwell’. I might have picked any of several volumes, but the fifth contains several particular favourites of mine — ‘The brisk young widow’, ‘Sally in our alley’, ‘The Lincolnshire poacher’, ‘Ca’ the yowes’. [As there aren’t decent performances of these on YouTube, here’s the immortal Nicolai Gedda singing a song from Volume 1.]

11. The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op. 77 (1966)
The second of Britten’s Church Parables, it doesn’t plumb the depths like Curlew River before it, but it’s thrilling in other ways. I think I approached it having read about Britten’s use of the alto trombone. A trombonist myself, my interest was piqued. The instrument gives a pungency to the orgiastic summoning of the God Merodak, the music informed by Britten’s travels to the Far East, but the most beautiful music is reserved for the scene where the three Israelites, cast into the furnace, are joined by an angel (sung by a boy). It’s a moment of transfigurative beauty.

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2 Responses to “A Britten XI”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    “The novella by Henry James that forms the basis of this chamber opera is notoriously difficult to adapt.”

    And yet, “The Turn of the Screw” has inspired both a great opera, and a great film (“The Innocents”). Perhaps the difficulty of adaptation can bring out the best in adapters. But “adaptation” may be the wrong word to use here: both the opera and the film take James’ work as a starting point for the creation of something new.

    Anyway, thanks for this. I have been introducing myself to Britten this last year (I have followed many of your recommendations), and although I have made some good progress, many of your choices in this post I cannot yet acquainted with. I shall try toremedy that. Of the pieces that I did get to know last year, I find myself particularly fond of his string quartets.

    • Gareth Says:

      You’re quite right, adaptation’s not quite the right word for Britten’s Screw or The Innocents. The story requires a person with vision to turn it into something else. Britten had that, and so did Jack Clayton. But straightforward adaptations almost always fail.

      The string quartets I don’t know at all well, but that’s something to look forward to. I hope the day when I know all of Britten’s music is very far distant. I didn’t intend this list to be a starter’s guide, more of a collection of personal favourites, but of course there’s nothing on it that I would warn you off, and there’s a lot that is immediately attractive (Saint Nicolas springs particularly to mind). The Flower Songs are a bit out there.

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