Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bits about Baron Britten

Did you know that composer Benjamin Britten was appointed a member of the Peerage a few months before his death in 1976? He was briefly entitled Baron of Aldeburgh (which lies in the county of Suffolk, England).

On Aldeburgh's beach stands a sculpture, The Scallop, dedicated to Benjamin Britten, who used to walk along the beach in the afternoons. The piece is made up of two interlocking scallop shells, each broken, the upright shell being pierced with the words: "I hear those voices that will not be drowned", which are taken from Britten's opera Peter Grimes.

Britten was born in 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the son of a dentist and a talented amateur musician. He showed musical gifts very early in life, and began composing prolifically as a child, with some 800 works and fragments preceding his early published works.

Britten was also an accomplished pianist, frequently performing chamber music and accompanying lieder and song recitals. As a conductor, Britten performed the music of many composers, as well as his own.

Early in his career, Britten made a conscious effort to set himself apart from the English musical mainstream, but contemporary critics distrusted his cosmopolitanism and admiration for composers such as Mahler, Berg, and Stravinsky, not at the time considered appropriate models for a young English musician. Britten's status as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century is now secure among professional critics. However, criticism of his music is apt to become entangled with consideration of his personality, his politics (especially his pacifism in World War II) and his sexuality.

For many musicians, on the other hand, Britten's technique, broad musical and human sympathies and ability to treat the most traditional of musical forms with freshness and originality place him at the head of composers of his generation. A notable tribute is Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, an orchestral piece written in 1977 by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

Personally I find much of Britten's music hard work to appreciate, but I will admit that once a work grows on one, it is there to stay! Amongst all the bang-clash-screech of his music there are also the most beautiful melodies and harmonies to be found - totally lovable!

So what do you think of Britten's music? Feel free to leave a comment; we'd love to hear your opinion!


Leanne daharja said...

Oh, gosh...well, you asked!

I think he was incredibly variable. Many of his works, and some of the movements within works, vary just too hugely in quality and style to just simply say "yep, he's great, love 'im" or "can't stand the blighter".

I really enjoy some parts of his St. Cecilia and Ceremony of Carols (of course), and there are parts of the St. Nicholas that are really well put together too. But I don't think he ever wrote anything that is a patch on a number of other composers - fellow Britons like Elgar's DOG (which is a real masterpiece) or other 20C non-Brits like Stravinsky, Xinghai, Prokofiev, Gershwin or even the lighter guys like Faure. He's just not in the same class, in my 'umble.

But hey, I'm just a sop. What would I know?

Anne Thomson said...

We sangCeremony of Carols a number of times(one time with harp) and Missa Brevis at school, and I enjoyed them, but I have always felt that Britten is more fun to sing than to listen to.

Leta said...

Anne, I must agree with you. I was a member of our high school's 'chamber choir' and we did 'Ceremony of Carols' too - enjoyed it tremendously! It is quite a challenge to sing well and our young voices did not have much trouble in those days! I still have 'This Little Babe' going around in my head! I'm an alto now, but then I sang first soprano.