The Many Facets of Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten is a long way from having invented the concept of the all-around musician, but he certainly is its most significant embodiment today. In addition to producing a series of musical works generally accounted among this century’s most enduring, he is unceasingly active as conductor, pianist, accompanist, and director of a festival which has become one of the world’s most individual and important — that at Aldeburgh on the North Sea coast of England.

Britten, a youthful-looking fiftythree, was in New York recently during his first visit to the United States in nineteen years. The purpose was typical, to appear in two song recitals as accompanist for his longtime associate the tenor Peter Pears. Even the choice of concert hall told something of the man, for the recitals were scheduled neither for Philharmonic nor Carnegie Halls but for the smaller and less “commercial” Hunter College auditorium. But artistic dedication, no matter how strong, is no guarantee against the cold bug, and Pears was laid low by a chest cold, necessitating a few days’ postponement of one of the concerts, giving Britten an hour free for conversation about his music.

He did not find, he said, that the variety of his musical activities in any way impeded or detracted from his composing — in fact, quite the contrary. “I believe very strongly,” he said, “that the composer is a servant to the community, and the closer to the community he is, the better is his work, I believe in keeping contact with the public.”

One of the ways in which the public manages to keep contact with Britten is through recordings. Among living composers, his recorded oeuvre, as tabulated in the Schwann catalogue, runs second only to Stravinsky’s, and his creative span, of course, has been far briefer. Like Stravinsky, he is privileged to record his own works, ranging from his short and amiable Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra to such massive compositions as the opera Peter Grimes and the War Requiem, written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral. Later generations will have the opportunity of knowing not only what Britten wrote, but how he wanted it performed.

They also may be interested in his interpretative views on such masterpieces of other composers as Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. The Britten-Pears musical collaboration has produced few results more haunting or beautiful than this. One of their two New York programs was given over to it in its entirety, and they have also made a recording for London (OSA-1261, stereo; A-4261, monaural: two records) which, to me at least, far surpasses in its subtlety and spontaneity the calculated performances of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which are customarily regarded as the ultimate in this music.

Britten has also conducted his opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream for records, with Alfred Deller, Elizabeth Harwood, John Shirley-Quirk, Owen Brannigan, and Pears heading the large cast (London OSA-1385, stereo; A-4385, monaural: three records). Perhaps more than any other composer of our time, Britten is involved in a kind of love affair with the English language; his musical impulses have stemmed from writers as diverse as W. H. Auden, George Crabbe, Henry James, and Wilfred Owen.

For A Midsummer Night’s Dream Britten himself, in collaboration with Pears, drew the libretto from Shakespeare’s play, condensing the events in the “wood near Athens” with such skill that, while half the lines are eliminated, those that remain are intact and unaltered. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play which exists on three levels — the worldly romance of the two pairs of lovers, the supernatural doings of Oberon and his fairy court, the down-to-earth farce of the rustics with their ludicrous performance of that “most lamentable comedy” Pyramus and Thishe, Britten blends the three masterfully in his music so that they overlap and intertwine gracefully, without ever losing their identity. Peter Quince, Nick Bottom, and their crew of bumpkins enliven the opera enormously, just as they do the play; when Quince calls the roll at their first entrance, for instance, they respond “Ay” in the harmonies of a barbershop quartet — a delectable touch.

The whole of the opera is pervaded by a sense of dreaminess and the subconscious. Its instrumental opening is one of the most remarkable in all opera — orchestral glissandi that produce swoops as mysterious and unearthly as any manufactured by an electronic music laboratory. And yet it is only the lower strings of lire orchestra at work, first the double basses, then the cellos, finally the violas and violins, all playing muted and divided. The depiction of the fairy kingdom, with trumpet flourishes for Puck and chimelike patterns for Oberon, is similarly striking. And the vocal lines are always clear, fresh, and fanciful, with a particularly folksy quality being reserved for Peter Quince and his fellow players. With its close-woven texture illuminated by many inventive touches, it is an opera that repays attentive listening, and one that is eminently well suited to a recording, especially a recording as skilled and sympathetic as this.

Is there an identifiably “English” quality about A Midsummer Might’s Dream and other of Britten’s works? When the question was put to him, the composer said he wasn’t certain himself. “I am not aware of it,” he said, “though oddly enough in England I am accused of not having it, and abroad of having it. If it does exist, it must come from this very beautiful language of ours, which must affect and infect the music. Then, too, there is a natural quality in our art which permits us to go easily from tragedy to comedy. The Germans like to think of Shakespeare’s plays as either one or the other. But Shakespeare can mix the two, and this can be reflected in music.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a full-length opera demanding a large cast, chorus, and orchestra, was first given at the Aldcburgh Festival in 1960. Since then, Britten has been evolving a smaller, more concise form of stage work, perhaps best represented in his Curlew River, based on a Japanese no play, and The Burning Fiery Furnace, which is the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

“I really invented this form of church parable,” he said, “and I find there is a great demand for it. I am writing a third work, The Prodigal Son, to make a trilogy that can be performed on three successive evenings. I won’t give up other styles of writing, but I must say the response of young people in Europe, even in Russia, to this parable form has been very exciting indeed.”

Also in Britten’s immediate plans is an opera for television. He was reluctant to discuss the subject of the work, which he said had already undergone one change, but indicated that it would be a chamber opera on the scale of his Turn of the Screw, and one specifically designed to explore the television medium “thoroughly.”

In the meantime, his older works have solidly established themselves as part of the everyday repertory in many countries. Peter Grimes last season proved even more of a public favorite at the Metropolitan Opera House than it had in its initial presentation in 1948. Curlew River was an immediate success at the Caramoor Festival in New York State. The Burning Fiery Furnace recently became the first opera ever given at the London Promenade Concerts, playing before an enthusiastic audience of 6000, most of them young people. Albert Herring, a delightful comic opera which inexplicably is seldom given in the United States, has attained popularity throughout Europe. Britten said he recently attended its fiftieth performance in Budapest — translated into Hungarian!

With his activities undiminished and his creative powers at their height, Britten would seem likely to continue producing an unbroken series of major works for years to come. The Aldeburgh Festival, which last summer added a handsome and acoustically admirable 800-seat concert hall to its less formal facilities, will provide a natural site for many of these, substantiating Britten’s contention that one form of musical activity actually crossfertilizes another. Britten the opera composer may well be kept busier than ever by Britten the festival impresario.

Certainly he seems unlikely at any point in his career to lack for literary inspiration. “I read an enormous amount of poetry,” he said. “I read poetry more than prose. And what I read I stuff away and store in my subconscious.”

For a final question, I asked him, with some trepidation, “Are you conscious of creating masterpieces?”

He seemed genuinely startled. “Good God, no,” he said. “I write music as well as I possibly can. I don’t ever pretend I’m a hundred percent satisfied with what I’ve done. But if by chance the music I write is of use to people in later years, I’d certainly be delighted. But I don’t write for posterity. I write for my friends — and I hope there are many — of today.”

Record Reviews

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection ”).

Maurice A bravanel conducting Utah Symphony Orchestra and University of Utah Civic Chorale, with Beverly Sills, soprano, and Florence Kopleff, contralto; Vanguard VCS-10003 (stereo): two records

This excellent album helps launch Vanguard’s new Cardinal series, priced at $3.50 a record, released in stereo, and utilizing the Dolby sound system, which virtually suppresses background noise and which many companies are adopting. The sound of this recording is spectacularly good — clearly defined, sonorous, and spacious. The Utah Symphony’s strings lack the lushness of, say, the Philadelphia’s, but Abravanel builds up some colossal climaxes that well convey the stride and sweep of this massively scaled symphony. And Beverly Sills and Florence Kopleff provide him with two first-rate soloists. By the evidence adduced here, Mahler is flourishing in Utah these days.

Stan Getz & Arthur Fiedler at Tangle-wood

Arthur Fiedler conducting Boston Pops Orchestra, with Stan Getz, saxophone; RCA Victor LSC-2925 (stereo) and LM-2925

The adaptability of Arthur Fiedler never ceases to astonish. Here he is, at a Boston Pops Pension Fund concert, amiably making jazz music together with Stan Getz, in pieces written by Eddie Sauter, David Raskin, and Alec Wilder, Sauter’s Tanglewood Concerto being the most substantial. For all the skill of the writing, none of these jazz works seems likely to shoulder a piece like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue out of the way. What does give this record its spark is the amazingly agile and expressive saxophone playing by Getz, and Fiedler’s aforementioned enthusiastic eclecticism.

Poulenc: Banalités, Chansons Villageoises, and other songs

Ravel: His to ires Naturelles; Three Hebrew Songs

Pierre Bernac, baritone, and Francis Poulenc, pianist; Odyssey 32-26-009 (monaural only): two records

Reissuance of these recordings will be good news to admirers of Poulenc’s ironic, elegant, and altogether original songs. Bernac’s performances of them, with the composer at the piano, were one of the vocal adornments of the old Columbia LP catalogue, and now they are available once more, and in a bargain album to boot. Also included are songs by Chabrier, Debussy, and Satie — as fresh and bracing a collection of the modern French chanson as exists in the entire record catalogue. Unhappily, the package contains neither texts nor translations, and the brief summaries offered are woefully inadequate.

Yeats: Poems

Read by Chris Curran, Jim Norton, Arthur O’Sullivan, and Sheila Manahan; Argo RG-449 (monaural only)

More than sixty long-playing records will eventually make up the series of “English Poets" being put out by Argo in association with the British Council and Oxford University Press, and this surely will be among the linest. The Yeats poems are read with exemplary clarity and just the touch of brogue necessary to establish their Irish identity. The selection of poems is a varied one — the long and the short, the famous and the obscure. It would be thankless to select a favorite reader among the four, but the bite and defiance Arthur O’Sullivan puts into the first poem on the record, “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner,” establishes an immediate sense of authority and authenticity.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

With Bill Hinnant, Reva Rose, Karen Johnson, Bob Balaban, Skip Hinnant, and Gary Burghoff; MGM S1E-9 OC {stereo) and IE-9 OC

Last April praise was accorded in this space to a record of the same title released on the Leo the Lion label, an MGM subsidiary. That record led to an off-Broadway show called You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which in turn has produced a second record bearing the identical name. This is the sort of confusion that drives Linus to his blanket, but it should not deter devotees of the “Peanuts” comic strip from investigating the new record. In fact, it’s even better than the old one, largely because of the presence of Reva Rose as the mean and saucy Lucy, bane of Charlie Brown’s life, and of the addition of some new musical material. Outstanding among this is a latter-day contrapuntal exercise called “Book Report,” in which four children simultaneously work out the same homework assignment in four diagrammatically opposing ways. Every parent will recognize its truth instantly.

Echoes of Childhood

George Feyer, pianist, with rhythm accompaniment; Decca DL-74907 (stereo) and DL-4907

George Feyer does the same thing over and over again, but he does it so well that each new record is a delight. At the piano keyboard he strings together a sparkling succession of popular tunes, and with the help of a small rhythm band, makes listening to them an enchanting experience. On this record he has put together some forty songs of “childhood,” a term broad enough to encompass such diverse items as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,”“London Bridge,” “Alouette,” “Waltz of the Flowers,” “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf,” “Rustle of Spring,” and the Alla turca from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A, K. 331. Not a very important record, perhaps, but a highly enjoyable one.

Massenet: Werllier (complete opera)

Elie Cohen conducting Paris OperaComique Chorus and Orchestra, with Georges Thill, tenor; Ninon Vallin, mezzo-soprano; Germaine Feraldy, soprano; and others; Pathé FCXPM-35043/45: three records (monaural only)

Some French operas, like some French wines, don’t travel well, and Massenet’s Werther is one of them. Only a Parisian company operating on its home grounds can do it justice, and a better one has never existed than the Thill-Vallin-Feraldy cast here assembled. So the doleful tale of the languishing youth who kills himself for love actually seems plausible for once, and Massenet’s music takes on a certain strength to go with its sentimentality. Unfortunately the sound of this reissue, dating from the 1930s, clouds over at times, such as at the climax of the famous tenor aria “Pourquoi me reveiller.” Still, this is Werther as it should be, and once was, sung.

Sophocles: Antigone

Howard Sackler directing Dorothy Tulin as Antigone, Eileen Atkins as Ismene, Max Adrian as Creon, Geoffrey Dunn as Teiresias, Jeremy Brett as Haimon,and others; Caedmon TRS-320-S {stereo) and TRS-320: two records

Greek plays in English translation often pick up Shakespearean echoes, and this happens to Antigone in the version of Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald’s. There is more of a literary than a dramatic quality to the performance, though the essential character of the moral conflict between Antigone, obedient to her own conscience, and her father, Creon, ruled only by law and tradition, is certainly made clear. The chorus, sometimes the weakest element in modern presentations of Greek plays, here is among the strongest, with its voices, in various comb nations, adding a welcome element of excitement and tension.

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess (A Symphonic Picture); An American in Paris

William Steinberg conducting Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Command CC11037-SD (stereo)

William Steinberg is more widely renowned as an exponent of Bruckner than of Gershwin, but the opening notes of the Porgy and Bess score, in an orchestral adaptation by Robert Russell Bennett, dispel any doubts about the conductor’s affinity for this music, or for An American in Paris. Catfish Row and its denizens come to life almost as vividly in this instrumental version as in the original vocal score, and the excellent recorded sound adds another level of excitement. Incidentally, it was the late Fritz Reiner, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, who commissioned Bennett to arrange Porgy for orchestra in 1943; to that extent, at least, his successor, Steinberg, comes to the music naturally.

Vienna, City of My Dreams

Richard Tauber, tenor, with orchestral accompaniment; Seraphim 60051 {monaural only)

When Richard Tauber sings the “Merry Widow Waltz" and “Dein ist mein gauzes HerzJ they sound, simply, like the two greatest songs ever written by mortal man. Seldom has a singer been as perfectly matched to his material as was this remarkable tenor, who died in 1948, to the lilting waltz music of Vienna. These operetta and song recordings were made originally from 1928 to 1935, but as set forth in this splendid reissue, their champagne sparkle retains all of its life and brightness.