Best of Britten
We explore the English composer's best works
A Boy was Born (1933)
Benjamin Britten’s first full-blown masterpiece displayed an astonishing originality and sure-footedness that was to suffuse his entire musical life…
Britten wasn’t a child prodigy to the degree that Mozart, Mendelssohn or Korngold were, but he was no slouch when it came to juvenile achievement. He was writing from the age of five (a song, winsomely titled Do you no that my daddy has gone to London today), spent his school years generating a vast catalogue of pieces, and at 14 was adopted – which is not an overstatement – as composer Frank Bridge’s favoured pupil. Which meant that he arrived at the Royal College of Music in 1930 (aged 16: he doesn’t seem to have considered university) with a breadth of musical experience and sense of purpose that his teachers at the College hadn’t encountered.
‘What is an English public schoolboy doing writing music of this kind?’ was a typical response. And the result was a frustrating time in which only two of his student scores, the Sinfonietta and the Phantasy Quintet, had serious College performances: a slight that stayed with him.
But where the RCM hesitated, the outside world didn’t. Still a student, he found himself published by OUP and broadcast by the BBC who were quick to recognise that (as an in-house memorandum put it) ‘Mr Britten is the most interesting new arrival since Walton; we should watch his work very carefully’.
One of his first broadcasts was the premiere of A Boy was Born: a set of choral variations on nativity texts written during 1932-33 at the age of 19. And for anyone with ears to hear, it was a declaration of intent: a dazzling statement of professionalism, masterful technique and all-round virtuosity that looked the gentlemanly art of English choral writing in the face and beggared it.
The very brilliance of the Boy provided Britten’s critics with their early ammunition: he was ‘clever’ (not the most resounding accolade in 1930s England). But it also proved bizarrely influential on successive generations of composers (to this day a good deal of English choral music owes its structure, sound and method to the piece). And for Britten himself it established a practice of writing major works that inhabit the world of the church without quite belonging there or being in any way liturgical. Noye’s Fludde, War Requiem, Ceremony of Carols, the Church Parables and the Canticles are all examples of this ambiguity. Despite a Missa brevis and a few related settings, it’s an ambiguity that would endure throughout the composer’s life.
Simple Symphony (1934)
One of Britten’s most successful works was this early orchestral suite, a piece that is at turns wistful and mischievous but brilliantly structured, too…
One of the abiding themes of Britten’s work is childhood recollected as a state of innocence and place of refuge, vulnerable and powerful in equal measure. From the wretched but (significantly) rescued Sammy in The Little Sweep through to the journeying boy in Winter Words, his scores come populated with idealised representatives of small but shining souls who hold out from the machinations
of adulthood (alongside a few, like Miles in Turn of the Screw, who don’t). And he was scarcely out of his own childhood before he began to mythologise it, with a wistful but productive nostalgia that was well-established by the age of 20.
Reading Britten’s diary entries through the early 1930s is to be disarmed by juvenile expressions and a childlike outlook on the world in startling contrast to his musical sophistication. Aged 19, he describes a film of Erich Kästner’s book Emil and the Detectives as ‘the most perfect and satisfying that I have ever seen or ever hope to see’, and plans to turn it into music. He begins a programmatic string quartet depicting schoolboy scenes of PT exercises, ‘ragging’, and the like. And in 1934 he ‘dishes up’ (as he says) a ‘dear little school suite for strings’, based on music he had written as a child.
This is, of course, the sort of thing with which psychologists have field days – although Britten claimed the motivation for the dished-up Simple Symphony to be writer’s block, and was also well aware of the commercial return on schools music (hence his concern to get it published well before the start of the next academic term).
That the Simple Symphony became one of his biggest-earning scores must have been a comfort. But the piece was comfort music in its own right, like a sound-equivalent of nursery food. Having just left the RCM and far from certain of his next career move, he’d gone back to live in Lowestoft with his parents, looking for security. The Symphony was doing much the same – and doing it with an alliterative obsession that ran through his life. His siblings had been Bobby, Beth and Barbara Britten. When he found a partner it was Peter Pears. Small wonder that the movements of this comfort music were called ‘Boisterous Bourrée’, ‘Playful Pizzicato’, ‘Sentimental Sarabande’…
Night Mail (1936)
Gainful employment with the Post Office’s film unit gave Britten the opportunity to spread his wings and collaborate with one of literature’s towering figures…
Although 1934 had seen a couple of significant premieres, including a performance at the great meeting-place of the new that was the ISCM festival in Florence, it was a largely fallow year, taken up with family issues (his father’s illness and death) and their aftermath, including a long trip with his mother to Europe – in the course of their travels, he at least kept his ears open, attending 15 operas in five weeks.
In 1935 he moved back to London; and although the family apron strings weren’t wholly uncut – he was staying with his sister in West Hampstead – he faced a pressing need for regular income. One option was a job with the BBC, which would have been a distraction. But another, more productively, was writing music for the GPO Film Unit in Blackheath which produced short documentaries on subjects of supposed, although sometimes remote, relevance to the Post Office. Choosing the GPO, he began with a score for The King’s Stamp – earning £5 per week which, with a £3 per week royalty agreement from Boosey & Hawkes, gave him twice the national average wage.
In all he supplied music for 14 GPO films – although ‘music’ for these purposes was often a John Cage-like synthesis of atmospheric noise, produced resourcefully from anything to hand as well as the small group of (mostly six to seven) instruments allowed for in the budget.
As it turned out, this was valuable experience: the rigour, ingenuity, economy and direct impact called for were all qualities that would eventually feed into the Britten operas. And in the shorter term they equipped him for a succession of film, theatre and radio commissions that might easily have taken him to Hollywood – a possibility discussed when he was living in America a few years later – although his one involvement with a full-length feature film (Love from a Stranger, 1936) was less than happy.
Just as valuable was that the GPO work brought him into contact with the poet WH Auden, who supplied the scripts for many of these films, including the most celebrated: Night Mail, 1935/6. Older, wiser and more worldly, Auden stepped into the role of mentor for the clearly brilliant but naive and sexually inhibited composer. According to Basil Wright, the GPO director who introduced them, it was Auden who ‘awoke Ben’s real imaginative and emotional life’. And the result was an extraordinary collaborative relationship, with Auden texts inspiring nearly 40 Britten scores. That the relationship broke down in mid-course was a tragedy of both mens’ lives.
Les Illuminations (1939)
Buoyed by the freshness and vibrancy of America, Britten’s music seemed to enter a new phase in his setting of 19th-century French poet Rimbaud’s Illuminations…
For pacifists like Britten and Pears, the immediate reason for sampling life in America was their awareness that a new war with Germany was only a matter of time. Britain seemed a tired world, drained by the burden of declining imperial power; America, the fabled land of openness and opportunity, might offer a brighter future. The gifted musical couple arrived in Canada in May 1939 and then moved on to New York, expecting at first to stay for a few months.
Within seven days in July Britten composed Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, and played the solo part in the first performance in Toronto back in Canada a month later. Besides this brisk and breezy tour de force in Britten’s off-the-cuff virtuoso manner, he was also working on two much more deeply searching works: a full-scale Violin Concerto and a song cycle scored for soprano and strings, Les Illuminations. Before leaving England he had made two settings from this cycle of prose-poems, which chart the teenage Arthur Rimbaud’s bohemian progress through the low life of 1870s Paris and London, in the company of his fellow poet (and temporary lover) Paul Verlaine.
Britten finished his Violin Concerto in St Jovite in up-country Quebec in September 1939. A remarkable early masterpiece, it explores a musical world of turbulent virtuosity strikingly combined with dark tragedy. Next came the completion of Les Illuminations at the Long Island home of William and Elizabeth Mayer, a German-born psychiatrist and his artist-loving wife. (Pears had met Mrs Mayer on the ship taking him to a choral tour of America in 1936.)
In an inspired counterstroke of genius, Britten responded to the opium-stupefied virtuosity of Rimbaud’s poetic imagery not with the decadent chromaticism it would seem to suggest, but with music of brilliantly sharp outlines, strongly directional tonal clarity, and scintillating verve. Everything about Les Illuminations radiates an openness to experience in all its aspects, from degradation to exaltation; to the teeming activity of the surrounding world; and to the possibility of renewed life stemming from this cascade of encounters. The work’s masterstrokes range from the trumpet-evoking strings of the opening ‘Fanfare’ to the final ‘Départ’ setting, exquisitely poised between nostalgia and forward-looking acceptance. The French-speaking Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss sang the first performance of the complete Les Illuminations in London with the Boyd Neel String Orchestra in January 1940. Even the critic-resenting Britten must have been pleased at the news of the glowing response, both from the Aeolian Hall audience and from the gathered musical press.
A Ceremony of Carols (1942)
American sojourn over, a spate of top-flight choral works flowed from Britten’s pen as he sped towards England aboard Swedish cargo ship MS Axel Johnson…
By now the outbreak of the Second World War had put off any immediate chance of a return to England. When Britten went to Chicago to play the solo part in his Piano Concerto, the bitterly cold mid-Western winter brought about a streptococcal infection that then flared up on his return to Long Island, and might have killed him but for the trained nursing skills of the Mayers’ daughter Beata. A springtime recovery heralded another productive year. First came the orchestral Sinfonia da Requiem; then Diversions – a left-hand concerto for the one-armed Austrian pianist and war veteran Paul Wittgenstein – was followed by the first Britten work written specially for Pears, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo.
1941 saw the premiere of Paul Bunyan – part operetta, part would-be Broadway musical, setting a libretto by Britten’s compatriot and fellow-exile, WH Auden, and staged at New York’s Columbia University. Although well performed, this did not catch on with either press or public. A disappointed Britten visited California, where he and Pears came across a copy of the BBC magazine The Listener. This featured an article by EM Forster about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), author of a verse tale about an outcast local fisherman, Peter Grimes. It was a key moment for Britten, whose desire to return home was now unstoppable. He and Pears got a passage on a merchant ship in a wartime convoy, and sailed from New York in March 1942.
Browsing in a bookshop in Halifax in Nova Scotia before crossing the Atlantic, Britten bought a copy of the Everyman Library edition of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. Conditions on board ship were spartan and depressing; MS Axel Johnson could have been torpedoed at any point; and before leaving New York, Britten had had several manuscripts confiscated, apparently because they might be messages written in code. Among these had been the partly completed Hymn to St Cecilia, a choral setting of a specially written Auden text. Britten now wrote out the music from memory, finished it off, and during the rest of the voyage composed much of A Ceremony of Carols for three-part female chorus and harp, based on works in The English Galaxy. Both pieces have a poised purity and grace exceptional even for Britten, as if his mind was able to time travel into a world as far removed from his wartime surroundings as it was possible to imagine.
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1943)
As the Second World War blazed into its final years, so Britten was approaching his creative zenith with the Serenade – and a defining operatic commission…
Arriving in Liverpool in April 1942, Britten now had his newly written manuscripts confiscated too. Their subsequent return meant that A Ceremony of Carols could be completed with some additional settings, plus its beautiful central ‘Interlude’ for solo harp. When Britten conducted the work at Wigmore Hall a year after its December 1942 premiere, he used a choir of boy treble voices, a sonority whose innocent purity was from now on to feature often in his music.
The homecoming released a new surge of creative energy. Pears’s prospering solo career included a busy recital schedule, for which his accompanist and partner supplied him with the first of several books of folksong arrangements: the best settings, such as ‘The Salley Gardens’, are small miracles of imagination (although Pears and Britten never recorded perhaps the most haunting of all, ‘The trees they grow so high’). And there was a commission, from the Koussevitsky Foundation in America, for an opera. Work proceeded on the scenario and text of Peter Grimes, with librettist Montagu Slater.
Another new colleague was the fabulously talented young horn player Dennis Brain. Early in 1943, back at his pre-war home of the Old Mill at Snape, Britten composed the sequence of settings – by Cotton, Tennyson, Blake, Ben Jonson and Keats, plus the anonymous ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge’ – that make up the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which was premiered by Pears and Brain at the Wigmore Hall in October. In his trademark schoolboy manner Britten described the Serenade as ‘not important stuff, but quite pleasant’. He had in fact produced the work which for many remains his quintessential masterpiece. Framed by the solo horn’s ‘Prologue’ and offstage ‘Epilogue’, here is a complete and magical poetic world of sounds and moods, with no need of the frenetic rhetorical manner soon to be demanded by the world of opera.
True brilliance of technique means that you aren’t addicted to displaying it. Britten never wrote anything simpler, nor more powerful, than the Serenade’s ‘Elegy’, with its brooding horn framing the central setting of Blake’s poem – nor ever conjured more distilled loveliness than in Keats’s closing ‘Sonnet’, as evening gives way to night and the threshold of sleep. Underlying much of Britten’s music is a disturbed, even demonic quality. At the heart of the Serenade is a world of peace and serenity that was equally unique to his wondrous talent.
Peter Grimes (1945)
Britten’s Peter Grimes, about a persecuted outsider, was instantly hailed as the greatest English opera in centuries, despite the controversial timing of its premiere…
With the triumphant Sadler’s Wells premiere of Peter Grimes on 7 June 1945, Britten was instantly recognised as the new white hope of British music, ‘replacing’ William Walton who, according to legend, was seen hovering ashen-faced in the wings at the end. The work was also hailed as opening up a fresh future for English opera. Yet, in certain ways, this was an unlikely triumph at an unlikely time.
When homesickness had compelled Britten and his partner Peter Pears to return from the US to Britain in 1942, they knew they were despised by some for having ‘run away’ from the war and would face further criticism as conscientious objectors – not to speak of malicious gossip for a relationship which could easily land them in a prison. In adapting the protagonist of George Crabbe’s poem Peter Grimes to the operatic stage, Britten and his librettist Montagu Slater sought to raise Grimes from mere sadist to visionary outsider. Some have felt the resulting character no longer adds up; what does come over with frightening authenticity is the savagery of the manhunting mob – surely reflecting Britten’s own nightmares of persecution.
• Read more: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
Doubtless Britten also feared a repetition of the poor New York reception of his previous musical play Paul Bunyan in 1941. Indeed, Grimes could almost be called an opera about learning how to write an opera, since so many of its scenes are drawn from 19th-century tradition: a storm scene, a mad scene, a scene with church service ‘off’, and so on. Part of the opera’s success was the extent to which, by taking hints from more recent operas such as Berg’s Wozzeck and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Britten managed to transmute these old procedures into something fresh. But later, he became critical of Grimes himself, describing it to an enthusiast as ‘full of howlers!’.
Some of the Sadler’s Wells Company also opposed it as an unsuitable choice of opera to celebrate the post-war euphoria of summer 1945 and, after the run ended, the company’s director, Joan Cross, was forced to resign. Britten drew his own conclusions. In 1946 he turned, with The Rape of Lucretia, to the medium of chamber opera that he could control more completely, and in 1947 he founded his own English Opera Group. Not until 1950-51 did he attempt another grand opera. But meanwhile Grimes was carrying his name round the world.
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946)
An enduring love of early music, a passion for education and a mastery of orchestrating skills combined in Britten to produce one of the great works for children…
After the success of Peter Grimes in June 1945, Britten might have been expected to draw breath. In fact the rest of that year proved more hectic than ever. First, in July came a concert tour with Yehudi Menuhin to the recently liberated German concentration camps – a harrowing experience, reflected in the fierceness of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne for tenor and piano that he composed at feverish speed in August.
Yet the rhetorical vocal writing of these settings told of another, longer term influence, which peaked in the autumn of 1945: Britten’s commitment to the music of Purcell. In addition to ‘realising’ the accompaniments to some dozen Purcell songs to tour with Peter Pears, Britten spent September and October composing his substantial String Quartet No. 2 in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death – modelling its finale on Purcell’s favourite instrumental form, the chaconne. Not until December did he find time for an older commission from the Crown Film Unit to compose a score for an educational film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra. Yet, after deciding that variation form would best fulfil the brief, Britten duly borrowed his theme from, yet again, Purcell.
Based upon a Rondo from Purcell’s music for Abdelazar, the variations expose the orchestra in three ways: first by instrumental families, then instrument by instrument, and finally by bringing them sequentially together in a fugue. Yet in devising his often dazzling inventions, Britten evidently drew almost as much upon his early film experience as upon his musical skills: the variations, with their double bass, harp and xylophone glissandos, horn pile-ups and whip cracks are designed
to look as vivid as they sound.
In fact, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was to prove his last score for films. Yet it also opened up another development. Britten had always felt more at ease with young people than adults – instanced as early as 1935 in his school songbook Friday Afternoons. But from now on there was to be a spate of operas, cantatas and church music primarily for young participants and listeners: St Nicholas, Noye’s Fludde, Missa brevis and so on. Yet if their covert aim was also to gain more adherents to the music of Benjamin Britten, then The Young Person’s Guide has remained perhaps the most successful of all.
Billy Budd (1951)
By now, Britten had Aldeburgh in his sights as a place to live and as a location for a music festival. It was in Aldeburgh, too, that the idea of Billy Budd was conceived…
‘This isn’t our kind of thing, you know,’ Glyndebourne’s founder John Christie told his audience on the opening night of Britten’s second chamber opera Albert Herring. So ended Glyndebourne’s relationship with Britten, who had formed the English Opera Group (EOG) with Peter Pears and Herring’s librettist Eric Crozier in preparation to bail out.
That summer of 1947, EOG toured Britten’s two chamber operas in Holland and Switzerland, Albert Herring especially delighting packed houses. However the costs of touring proved ruinous, and Pears suggested holding a festival in Aldeburgh instead. With its poor rail and road links to London, the Suffolk fishing town seemed an eccentric choice of venue; yet Britten, already planning to move to Aldeburgh to overlook his beloved sea, seized on the idea.
The festival opened in 1948 with the cantata Saint Nicolas, Pears singing the title role. EM Forster also appeared, giving a lecture on Peter Grimes and the poem on which it is based. Having expressed an interest in writing a libretto himself, Forster was soon discussing with Crozier and Britten how to adapt Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Foretopman into an opera. Pears’s successful portrayal of the charismatic Saint Nicolas made him a natural choice to play HMS Indomitable’s beloved Captain Vere; indeed, Pears felt a natural empathy for the role since he had uncles and brothers in the navy. In Britten’s mind, Vere’s fraught choice between moral right and wartime discipline became as much the opera’s focus as the innocent, Christ-like Budd.
Yet despite Forster’s enthusiasm for the project, there were hiatuses as Britten fought overwork and depression, then temporarily became more attracted to composing a Requiem in memory of Gandhi, assassinated that year. Britten considered setting the traditional Latin Requiem Mass interspersed with texts pertinent to Gandhi’s life and work. But the idea was abandoned, and Billy Budd was finally completed, staged by Covent Garden during 1951’s Festival of Britain.
Just two years later, Britten’s ‘coronation’ opera Gloriana was accused of being subversive, or at least tactless, for showing England’s previous Queen Elizabeth torn between love and political necessity – rather similar, in fact, to Vere’s dilemma in Billy Budd. Yet Budd is arguably even more subversive. In an era when British officers were typically portrayed as noble, stiff lipped and sure-footed, Budd shows officers as complacent, capricious and cruel (having a novice flogged for slipping on deck) – even before we have encountered the evil master-at-arms Claggart.
War Requiem (1962)
Britten may have escaped much of World War II in the US, but a commission from Coventry Cathedral resulted in one of armed conflict’s most powerful artistic condemnations…
Early in 1959, Britten sketched two themes in the back of his diary: one was the ‘Sanctus’ for his Missa brevis, composed for Westminster Cathedral’s choristers; the other, the opening theme of Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, in which three strongly contrasting trumpet fanfares are presented in succession, then combined to stirring effect. And so, however unconsciously, he encapsulated the soundworld of what was to be his largest-scale choral work: the War Requiem.
Commissioned in 1958 to mark the 1962 re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt after its destruction in World War II, Britten seized the opportunity to create his most public anti-war statement. A key idea from the abandoned Gandhi project – interleaving the Requiem Mass with pertinent texts – prompted Britten to use poems by Wilfred Owen to comment upon and often angrily confront the liturgical Mass. The solo parts – soprano, tenor and bass – were assigned respectively to a Russian (Galina Vishnevskaya), an Englishman (Peter Pears) and a German (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), so underlining the work’s ultimate message of reconciliation. Britten divided the Mass text between the main chorus with soprano and orchestra, and an off-stage boys’ choir with chamber organ, the latter representing humanity in a state of unsullied innocence, yet vigorous and lively like the Westminster Cathedral choristers who had inspired the very similar soundworld of his Missa brevis.
There were other contributing sources and influences. Britten’s first-hand encounter with Balinese gamelan in 1956, which had first borne fruit in his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas and influenced the final pages of his children’s opera Noye’s Fludde, now inspired the accelerating jangle of bells which opens the War Requiem’s ‘Sanctus’. Most pertinent, though, was Britten’s 1952 Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, torn between his love for his son and his duty to God, faces a quandary not dissimilar to Vere’s in Budd (and was naturally, again, sung by Pears).
In his War Requiem setting of Owen’s bleak parody of that story, ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, Britten pointedly and extensively alludes to that Canticle, most poignantly when Owen’s young man (Pears) sings ‘My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron’ to a theme originally sung by Abraham in the Canticle: ‘O! my harte will breake in three… As thou wylte, Lorde, so muste yt be’; the old man, portrayed by Fischer-Dieskau, bleakly ignores this reminder of Abraham’s better nature, his cruelty remorseless as he kills his son ‘And half the seed of Europe, one by one’.
Cello Symphony (1963)
At the height of the cold war, an intense friendship between Russian cellist Rostropovich and Britten bore fruit of an extraordinary, dark variety…
‘If you want me to recover completely, I ask you to see the doctor whose address is: The Red House, Aldeburgh… Only he can bring me to life by composing a brilliant cello concerto.’ Slava Rostropovich’s 1962 request speaks volumes for one of the happiest artistic friendships of Britten’s career. Freed from the subtle pitfalls of a shared language (they communicated in a cod language they termed as ‘Aldeburgh Deutsch’), composer and cellist met on an artistic plane, lit with lively and affectionate humour. ‘I want to be with you and play with you every day,’ wrote Slava in 1962, ‘I am willing to go anywhere necessary (even on rocket) to be able to see you.’ An intense cross-fertilisation took place during their many performances in Britain and Russia, and within ten years of their 1960 meeting, Britten had created five major new cello works after a 20-year hiatus from instrumental writing.
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They met, appropriately, at a performance of Shostakovich’s first Cello Concerto. Britten, thrilled by Slava’s blazing personality, immediately proposed a Sonata (1961), almost a portrait of the cellist, with its fiery dialogue, playful pizzicato, sombre arioso and hell-for-leather Moto perpetuo. The gritty, dark Cello Symphony recalls his 1940 Sinfonia da Requiem. Forbidding and demanding, it was, until recently, rather neglected – a work in which the soloist struggles out of the menacing, bass-heavy orchestration into plangent lyricism. Only Shostakovich’s Second Concerto delves into this particular dark labyrinth. The Presto inquieto, like the Dies Irae of the Sinfonia, crackles with nervous energy. A deeply-felt Adagio distils into an eloquent cadenza; celestial arpeggios herald the miraculous emergence of a shining D major passacaglia. Its poignant shadows cling to the three intricate Cello Suites. Into these Britten wove his debt to Baroque forms, his belief in Slava but also the tragic context in which his Russian friends lived. The third (1971) would be his valediction, absorbing as it did the Russian hymn to the dead: after Britten’s death Slava couldn’t bring himself
to perform it.
In the year Britten completed the Cello Symphony he turned 50. He was at the height of his fame, but the festivities disturbed him: ‘I feel these concerts are… memorial rather than celebratory.’ He escaped to Venice in 1964 to complete Curlew River, the first of his refined, innovative Church Parables. The 1965 spell-binding Pushkin settings, The Poet’s Echo for Vishnevskaya, were written in Armenia, and owe a debt to Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, to whom he wrote ‘no one composing today has an equal influence on me’. The feeling was clearly mutual: Shostakovich dedicated his Symphony
No. 14 to Britten.
Death in Venice (1973)
In his bleak final opera, Britten was bidding farewell to the world but struggling, too, to find the answers to difficult, searching questions. He would never give up…
‘Ben is writing an evil opera, and it’s killing him,’ said Peter Pears. The opera was Death in Venice, Thomas Mann’s story of the breakdown of an ageing writer who falls under the spell of a beautiful boy, Tadzio, dying of plague in the process. What was actually killing Britten was aortic valve disease, vital surgery for which he postponed in order to complete the opera. But Pears was touching on a psychological truth – the opera was an overt expression of the dilemma that had fuelled Britten’s creativity: his intensely complex love of young boys. He once, enigmatically, said the opera ‘is everything that Peter and I have stood for’. The story unearthed his own demons: devotion to work over life, the drying up of inspiration, the struggle between Apollonian love of youth’s beauty and Eros, physical desire. Does beauty have to corrupt or can it set the soul free?
Already freighted with personal significance, this work was also a parting gift to Peter Pears, a remarkable final role whose inner narrative drives the drama. As ever, Britten created an entirely fresh soundworld characterised by pellucid, rippling textures and arresting, exotic sonorities. Venice, which had become a refuge for him, is depicted in bells, gondolier cries and lapping, delicately curdling harmonies. The voiceless dancer-youth is conjured with beguiling vibraphone and xylophone music – again, the fascination with gamelan. Where his recent televised opera Owen Wingrave, also to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, beats out its pacifist message with raw percussion, Death in Venice flows with spontaneous lyricism, underpinned by vital rhythmic tension. The music of Tadzio and Aschenbach never coalesce but shimmer into gleaming silence.
Britten’s heart operation was only a partial success: distressingly, he lost the use of his right arm, which spelt the end of his performing career. His first post-operative work, Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, was poignantly written with harp rather than piano. There followed the powerfully austere Phaedra for Janet Baker. He was too ill to attend the premiere of Death in Venice, but returned to the city in 1975 to complete his third, visionary string quartet, whose final Passacaglia, ‘La Serenissima’, circles around the opera’s obsessive Venice motif with questioning, heartbreaking simplicity. As Hans Keller said ‘Britten had ventured… into the instrumental purification of opera’. Significantly, his last opus was for local children, the sparkling Welcome Ode. ‘I wrote for human beings,’ he declared, ‘directly and deliberately.’