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Who Was Benjamin Britten?

Benjamin Britten, 1968

Benjamin Britten, 1968

Monday at 8:00 PM

The curious case of Benjamin Britten produces endless articles and speculation. There are many who knew, and worked with him, but no one claims to understand him. Britten functioned in a very pragmatic world, writing for broadcasts, public events and for schoolchildren; at the same time he was sending works to the best opera companies, the best soloists, and the best orchestras. He was at odds with his world: it was illegal for him to be himself (a homosexual); he was a pacifist in an age of ardent nationalism. He could be caustic with his friends.

Benjamin Britten remains an enigma. He put before audiences some of the darkest and most challenging subjects of a modern society; and did so in a voice that remains irresistible.

On Monday at 8:00 PM, WFMT celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten with a newly produced documentary, Benjamin Britten: the Beauty of Loneliness and of Pain, by Jon Tolansky. Contributors include Ian Bostridge, Sir John Tomlinson, Sir Thomas Allen, Thomas Hampson, and Steuart Bedford.

Here’s a Q and A with producer Jon Tolansky:

How is Britten regarded in the U.K.? What are his most-performed works?

He is extremely highly admired and regarded, but I think there are three different kinds of audiences, with overlaps between them of course.  There are those that respond readily to his more easily appealing works, which are his most frequently performed pieces here, such as the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Ceremony of Carols, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and the War Requiem.  Then there is certainly a large following for two of his operas: Peter Grimes and, to a lesser extent, Billy Budd.  That is interesting, because those works, like so many of Britten’s operas, are confrontational and challenging, yet they can fill the opera houses, most especially Peter Grimes.  I am not sure that so many of the first audience are also part of the second audience.  The third audience I think is a lot smaller, but perhaps the most devoted connoisseur element, and they respond strongly to the deep psychological, philosophical, social and, in some cases, spiritual issues of most of Britten’s operas, not only the two aforementioned, but in particular The Turn of the Screw, the church parables (such as Curlew River), and Death in Venice.

Does he have students who’ve gone on to make important contributions to music?

Britten did not teach and was not a pedagogue – he was much more concerned to bring music to the widest possible groups of people rather than become involved in academic education.  He is an interesting case, because there was never any school that came out of his work, yet in some ways he exerted a strong influence on some important composers in their earlier years, such as Thomas Ades and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

He was quite a humanitarian; would you like to discuss?

Human and social issues preoccupied Britten very deeply.  This is a complex topic that can only be sketched very briefly here.  So often in his operas, and to a lesser extent in his songs, he confronted the plight of the lone and sometimes disturbed human being at odds with an uncaring and, in some cases, persecuting society.  He thrusts powerful moral issues of human choice at his audiences in operas such as Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice.  Separately, but related, was his pacifism, and of course the War Requiem is the most celebrated example of this.

How would you characterize Britten’s relationship with Peter Pears?

Sir Peter Pears was Britten’s life-time partner from the end of the 1930s until the composer’s death.  Britten wrote the lion’s share of his songs and lead roles in the majority of his operas with Pears’ very individualistic style and character of singing specifically in mind.

Peter Pears was a great singer for specific kinds of repertoire—what do you think best suited his voice?

Aside from his unique position singing Britten’s oeuvre, Pears was a deeply cultured, expressive and refined interpreter of a fairly wide range of song and lieder, and a fine operatic singer and actor in a more limited repertoire.  Although the voice had a reedy and somewhat “white” characteristic, his poetic word-inflection and phrasing was particularly highly admired in the lieder of Schubert and Schumann, which he almost invariably performed with Britten accompanying.

Can you characterize Britten’s friendship with Rostropovich and Shostakovich?

Britten and Shostakovich hugely admired each other and became close artistic friends during the Cold War era when such a situation was hardly easy to fulfill.  They had in common many philosophical and humanistic elements.  Shostakovich introduced Britten to Rostropovich at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1960, and the two became mutual artistic devotees, with Britten composing three very demanding works specifically for Rostropovich: the Cello Sonata (premiered in 1961) the Cello Symphony (written in 1963) and three Cello Suites (composed in 1964, 1967 and 1971).  He also accompanied Rostropovich famously in a performance and recording of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata.  Rostropovich’s wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and Britten equally admired each other profoundly, and Britten composed the solo soprano part specifically for her in the War Requiem in 1962, followed in 1965 by the song cycle The Poet’s Echo, setting words by Alexander Pushkin.  Later, in 1971, Britten conducted the Western premiere of Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony.

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