It was crucial to include Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in Manning the Canon. He was not only one of the twentieth century’s most significant musicians, but also one of the first out-gay composers in history. He lived with his longtime partner, the tenor Peter Pears, for whom he wrote most of his songs and many of the leading roles in his operas. It was an act of defiance to flout England’s intense pressure to stay in the closet. “Gross indecency,” aka gay love, was still grounds for punishing same-sex lovers—the barbaric law that had sent Oscar Wilde to prison. In 1952 the great mathematician Alan Turing was entrapped and brought in on those charges. He was forced into hormone therapy and lost his security clearance. Eventually he took his own life.
Turing’s suicide puts Benjamin Britten’s and Peter Pears’ courage in perspective—and let’s add W. H. Auden into that group as well. He and Britten were close friends during their university days, and it was the free-wheeling, promiscuous Auden who actively encouraged the reticent composer to explore his sexuality. But the two men were never bed partners, in spite of Auden’s wishes. He fantasized a long-term romantic and artistic relationship with Britten, whose talent as a very young man already pointed to a place in the musical pantheon. They worked on a few projects together at the beginning of their careers, including the opera “Paul Bunyan” and the song cycle “On This Island.”
Britten instead fell for a young tenor, Peter Pears, and began to distance himself from Auden. It saddened the poet to watch his relationship to Britten dwindle, and he wrote a poem about his feeling of abandonment, “Night covers up the rigid land.” Britten then took the poem and set it to music, turning their estrangement into an ex post facto collaboration. Passive aggressive? A left-handed olive branch? A final twist of the knife? I don’t know. But a fine song, yes.
Here it is, sung by Philip Langridge and played by Steuart Bedford.
Longtime MESS & NYFOS favorite Theo Hoffman absolutely slays this conniving, wicked aria from act 1 of Britten’s masterpiece.
I wanted to talk today about partnerships, which seems particularly apt since Emily and I are presenting Song of the Day collaboratively!
From ages 13 to 18 I would spend as much of my time as possible accompanying the music lessons of my fellow schoolmates. It taught me—despite being quite unaware at the time—a multitude of musical skills that would go on to inform my career. To make good chamber music it’s not good enough to concentrate solely on your part. One must be fully aware of the other performers and their parts too in order to make truly collaborative music. I found this kind of music-making desperately satisfying, more so even than solo performing. The electricity of that musical symbiosis (presuming you have a partner who is equally into collaborating as you are!) is utterly exhilarating and without compare. It’s the ultimate partnership.
When I first had the pleasure of hearing my first NYFOS concert I realized, as many of you do, too, that I was witness to an extraordinary collaborative feat: a performance that was greater than the sum of its parts thanks to immaculate and engaging singing, ever-creative piano playing, and brilliant combinations of words and music.
Song composition is an equally exhilarating exercise in partnership: composers muse over poetry and prose and think of ways in which it speaks to them, and how they might further inform the listener of its moods and intentions through their music. The creative possibilities are endless. One of my favorite composers is Benjamin Britten, who, in addition to a long and distinguished career in that field also enjoyed an active life as a performer. He frequently composed for and performed with for his life partner and muse, Peter Pears, himself a superb if somewhat idiosyncratic tenor. That partnership prompted Britten to write some of the most expressive and imaginative compositions such as Peter Grimes, the War Requiem, and a host of original songs and arrangements.
As a young artist at the Britten-Pears School a number of years ago I had the pleasure and privilege of further immersing myself in the musical and personal worlds of Britten and Pears. The couple’s home since 1957 was the Red House in Aldeburgh, a charming seaside village on the English Coast. During the customary tour we were shown the many features of interest, including the foot-operated bell under the dining room table with which Britten would entertain young children by “magically” summoning the housekeeper, and the cowbells on the stairs that Rostropovich would noisily ring to wake the entire household when he was staying there.
But most poignant was the reminder that homosexuality in England was illegal until 1967. Despite having separate bedrooms, their living together was a great risk, and several of Britten and Pears’ colleagues were imprisoned for suspected homosexual acts. It made me realize the extent of the risk that flowed throughout their relationship, and how that must have further informed Britten’s composing and their performing. It is also an enduring reminder that love conquers all in the end.
To close, I wanted to share a performance of these two great men performing Schumann’s Mondnacht from the Op.39 Liederkreis, written in 1841, the composer’s ‘year of song’. It was recorded live as part of an Aldeburgh Festival recital given in the Jubilee Hall on 15 June, 1958. The heavens stoop down to kiss the earth in a mystical nocturnal scene full of the romanticism and atmosphere we associate with the lieder tradition. Theorists and musicologists have written more about this song than perhaps any other. As a student I loved to discover that, among many other things, Schumann used the notes E-B-E (B-natural is H in German) to spell “Ehe”, German for “marriage”, in the piano part. The marriage of music and words is indeed sans pareil. Sadly only an extract of this particular recording was available, so listen to Janet Baker’s performance to hear the entire song.
Excerpt of Britten/Pears performance of Mondnacht
Janet Baker sings “Mondnacht”
My teaching week has mixed coaching sessions with auditions for the January NYFOS@Juilliard show: an all-British program called “From Lute Song to the Beatles.” I had asked the students to bring in English song, suggesting they they might offer one art song in tandem with either an operetta aria or a popular song. It’s only Tuesday and I’ve already heard Finzi, Quilter, Britten, John Ireland, and Purcell—plus two renditions of Yum-Yum’s aria from The Mikado (one of them sinuous and accurate with the text, the other less so); a song by the British band Keane which was then popularized by Lily Allen—don’t worry if these names don’t ring a bell, I hadn’t heard of them either (and I can’t say the music did a lot for me); and several surprisingly good performances of Beatles songs. One young woman tore into “All My Loving” with a kind of spontaneous openness I’d never witnessed in her classical singing. Another woman, whose low register had struck me as a little weak and colorless when I heard her ten days ago, delivered a sensationally vibrant version of “Blackbird.” Contrary to received wisdom, hearing singers trot out their opera arias doesn’t tell you everything about their voice. I started to think that opera audition panels should be asking for five arias—plus a Beatles tune.
No one brought in any songs by Frank Bridge, but he’ll be featured in the winter concert. Here’s one of his songs, 90 seconds of magic: “Goldenhair,” set to a poem by James Joyce. In this recording Peter Pears is at his best, and Benjamin Britten plays with the kind of fluidity that I only dream of. His knuckles sound as if they are made out of Crisco. I mean that as a compliment.
One of the pieces of music that has haunted my mind (and by that I mean made my imagination run wild) since I was first exposed to it is Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Written in 1965 for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the piece serves as a meditation on the state of the world and the frailty of man in Britten’s day and Blake’s, about 200 years prior to the work’s composition.
Songs and Proverbs is a truly unique piece, and stands out from Britten’s output and the song repertoire at large. Britten sets the songs as a continuous thought, with the individual songs connected with wild, mystical recitatives. The poems themselves comment on everything from child abuse to murder (Britten’s favorite subjects). I find them to be some of the most poignant songs he ever wrote, although through my experience with them, they are most potent when performed as an opus. They’re such a particular flavor that they’re rather difficult to remove from their natural habitat, as is the case with several of Britten’s other cycles, but even more so here because of the continuous nature of the composition.
As is usually the case with Britten, there seeps in a strange, abstract religious connotation. In the first recitative, we have four exclamations which set the philosophical yet somehow sultry tone of the entire piece:
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
And then we dive into Blake’s brutal, twisted, yet undyingly honest world.
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