The Apostle of Aldeburgh

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.

Aldeburgh started in 1948 as one of the many arts festivals that sprouted after the war — such as Edinburgh and Holland. Its ethos was “small is beautiful” and an attempt to capture a Schubertian sense of friends making art together. It provided an arena for Britten premieres and for bringing together, in the context of a small Suffolk coastal town, some of the giants of the international music scene — Richter, Fischer-Dieskau, Rostropovich. There were community works to be done, and Britten engaged his full genius in writing them — think of his children’s opera Noye’s Fludde — but also first performances of works that have become repertory standards in the largest concert halls and theatres. I last saw Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the vastness of the Metropolitan Opera (capacity 4,000), New York (population eight million). It is extraordinary to remember that it had its first performances in the Jubilee Hall (capacity 300), Aldeburgh (population 3,000). Today, the Aldeburgh Festival has developed beyond all measure in its ambitions, but the expansion of teaching, residencies and performance spaces has remained true to the localist ambitions of its founders. Aldeburgh now runs events throughout the year, and an exciting new performance space has just been opened. The Festival proper, the 62nd, takes place this month.

Far away from all that, I have been singing Britten’s Rimbaud cycle for string orchestra, Les Illuminations, in Chicago with Bernard Haitink and the city’s magnificent Symphony Orchestra (conductor emeritus, the aforementioned Pierre Boulez). This is the other side of Britten, playing the international circuit, but it struck me forcefully that many members of the orchestra didn’t really know the work beforehand and were blown away by it. It’s a very American piece, completed while Britten was living in Amityville outside New York and with, indeed, a very Chicago vibe, full of musical and poetic images of city bustle — threat and opportunity — and the metaphorical presence of water, gleaming, glistening and slithering, to drown in and to dissolve our differences, our preconceptions. Water, the lake, is crucial to the character and the colour of Chicago. 

If Britten’s music is pretty unfamiliar territory for the orchestra here and Shostakovich, for example, more their sort of thing (they were playing his last symphony as part of the programme, a piece they know well), it’s not entirely their fault. Britten didn’t write many big symphonic works and used his unrivalled understanding of Mahlerian orchestration more often in the context of reduced, chamber orchestra forces. Again, it’s all of a piece with the philosophy, the preference for the small-scale, a sort of self-denying ordinance. What has kept Britten at the centre of the glamorous international musical machine has been the music theatre, the unrivalled achievement of a large body of singable, profound and original opera written in a period where some (Boulez again) were calling for the opera houses to be burnt down. 

The week I sang Les Illuminations, Britten’s pacifist opera Owen Wingrave was in rehearsal at the Chicago Opera Theatre. The big question — and it is the same question I face every time I sing a Schubert song in Carnegie Hall, La Scala or the Barbican — is whether one can remain true to the genius of a chamber work like Turn of the Screw or A Midsummer Night’s Dream when producing it in a large house. It seems to me that it is only by moving back and forth between the local and the metropolitan or cosmopolitan that one can have any hope of keeping the spirit of the music alive. And in the end that is the artistic, rather than the political or social, rationale for the community and education work which is ever more important for opera houses and orchestras the world over.

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