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Benjamin Britten stands for two crucial things in the world of music. First and foremost is the music itself, which is unapologetically grounded in familiar diatonic harmony, resistant to the totalising claims of modernism. This is music, which, pace Stravinsky, can express something; music that resists the youthful conviction of Pierre Boulez that "any musician who has not experienced — I do not say understood, but truly experienced — the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS". Stravinsky himself, the icon of classical music in the 20th century — even the great and in many ways reactionary Stravinsky — lacked the confidence to resist this sort of aggressive appeal to the historical inevitability of tonal dissolution. The revolutionary potential of vanguardist music now reads, of course, like some sort of sick joke. 

Britten's dramatic subjects, in opera and song, are often centred on ambiguity, which musical language, non-denotative as it is, is supremely well able to capture. But with Britten music, however difficult to pin down, however multifaceted and multivalent, was not just about itself, as Eduard Hanslick had claimed in the 19th century, as Stravinsky claimed in the 20th. A supreme master of form, Britten was no formalist. To be suggestive, as his music so eminently is, is to suggest something after all. Britten remains one of the few masterly 20th-century voices — Janácek, Sibelius, Bartók are some of the others — who were able to resist the siren call of new systems, of tone rows, or the alienated and alienating avant-garde. He proved that music written in the tradition of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, and using the same means as those composers, need not be either nostalgic kitsch or archly referential. The seam of invention was by no means exhausted. As a result, his music lives and is performed and appreciated worldwide.

If Britten stands out for his rejection of avantgardism, that has to be seen in the context of a social philosophy of music. For him, music was linked to local purpose, to small enterprises, and he was suspicious of glamour and of fashion, and resistant to co-option in Vanity Fair, the musical merry-go-round. As Paul Kildea suggests in his contribution to the handsome New Aldeburgh Anthology by Boydell Press (£35), which has just been published, the success of Britten's opera Peter Grimes weeks after the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945 gave him enormous credibility. A very British success in a hitherto Continental field of cultural endeavour meant that the composer had accumulated great cultural capital. Many would have spent this capital on feathering their nests in the metropolis. Britten, however, devoted his energies instead to a musical experiment in an out-of-the-way provincial locale. His reasons for doing so may have been as personal as they were idealistic. His homosexuality and his sensitivity to criticism — particularly after the scandalised reception of his coronation opera Gloriana — were important factors in his retreat from mainstream cultural life. But the result has been, extraordinarily, to give a permanent place in the world's musical calendar to a tiny seaside town.

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