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November 2013
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Bill McGlaughlin on Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten at the piano


As celebrations of Britten at 100 continue, Bill McGlaughlin takes a moment to reflect on his many years of presenting works by this English enigma.

Where does Britten stand among other mid-20th composers like Copland, Bernstein, and Shostakovich?

Britten suffers from the small-island-nation problem. We hear a lot of Copland and Bernstein here in North America, where their music is much better known than it is in the UK, for example. Similarly, English composers receive a fair representation of their work in the UK and next to none here. Britten and Vaughan Williams and Elgar are pretty much the only 20th century English composers who are heard here on this side of the Atlantic, and what we do hear is limited to a small representation of the their total output. Given the provincial nature of our music programmers, whether at radio stations or symphony orchestras and concert promoters, it’s a tribute to the power of their work that even these three are ever heard here.

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

I don’t have to guess at the nature of Britten’s relationship with Peter Pears. Britten acknowledged Pears as his muse and created a marvelous body of work for Pears to sing, often in concert with Britten. As to their personal relationship, they were both modest, private creatures and that’s good enough for me.

Britten returned to the subject of children—boys—again and again; sometimes tackling some pretty dark subjects. What’s that about?

Britten wrote often and brilliantly for boys voices. Think of the Ceremony of Carols, just for starters and going on through the appearance of a boy choir from the heavens at the end of the War Requiem. Judging from works like Peter Grimes, it’s fair to assume that Britten felt a strong empathy for children. In this day of whole-scale discoveries of the mistreatment of children by people entrusted with their care, it’s easy to suspect everyone of misdoings but I’ve never heard a breath of scandal over Britten’s involvement with children. On the contrary I and can think of some interviews both on video and in print in which men who made music with Britten when they were youngsters uniformly recalled him as kind, caring and deeply inspiring.

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

Britten and Shostakovich shared a powerful interest in the music of Gustav Mahler and this at at time long before the performance of Mahler’s work had become the commonplace it is today. I think discovering this mutual passion prepared them to become very deeply connected. For myself, I hear the influence of Mahler much more strongly in Shostakovich, especially the later work, but perhaps even masterpieces like the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings demonstrate something of Mahler’s influence in Britten.

Hear Bill McGlaughlin exploring the subject of Benjamin Britten all this week on Exploring Music with Bill Mc”Glaughlin, weeknights at 7:00 PM.

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