Classical Break - Benjamin Britten (first broadcast in 2013)
|Benjamin Britten 1913-1976|
Hunt the Squirrel – 1.20
Hello and welcome to Classical Break. I’m Rupert Kirkham.
Today’s programme features music by one of England’s finest composers, Benjamin Britten.
November 2013 saw the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Britten, in Lowestoft, on the Suffolk coast, the coast where he lived and composed for much of his life, where he built an opera house and a festival, and where he died in December 1976.
The son of a dentist, he studied at the Royal College of Music in London and privately with the composer Frank Bridge. He was a brilliant pianist and had a phenomenal understanding of the capabilities and limitations of all the instruments in the orchestra.
One of the last pieces of music Britten composed, he undertook in 4 weeks between October and November 1974 – two years before his death. This was the Suite on English Folk Tunes, opus 90, from which our opening piece today was taken. Subtitled, “A time there was,...” after a phrase in a poem by Thomas Hardy, the Suite draws from a number of English folk songs and tunes. We heard ‘Hunt the Squirrel’ – an appropriate little number I felt as we ponder the rights and wrongs of the badger-culling experiment in Somerset that has just begun. There’ll be more from Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes later in the programme.
But let’s hear next, a piece of music originally written by the man to whom the Suite on English Folksongs was dedicated – a collector of folksongs himself, the Australian composer, Percy Grainger. Molly on the Shore.
Molly on the Shore - Percy Grainger – 3.49
Molly on the Shore, by Percy Grainger. That came from a collection of Grainger’s tunes re-set by Britten called ‘Salute to Percy Grainger’.
Next, we have one of Britten’s most well-known works, from his Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell, also known as ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, here’s the fugue.
Fugue from Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – 2.40
Like most artists, Britten drew his inspiration from life. He lived, as I mentioned earlier, on the Suffolk coast – a wild and desolate place, so it’s not surprising that some of his music reflects the strength and beauty of the sea. In his opera, Peter Grimes, Britten chooses a story that is not only set in a coastal fishing village, but also features a character with some of the problems faced by Britten as a homosexual in a country that for much of his life, could have incarcerated him.
He says of the Opera ‘(It is) a subject very close to my heart – the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.'
Set in the early 1800’s Peter Grimes is a fisherman who is accused of killing not one, but two young boy apprentices. The action is broken up by 4 ‘Sea Interludes’ The climax of the action takes place during a huge storm.
Here’s the Storm interlude.
|A scene from "Peter Grimes" at the Aldeburgh Festival. The action took place on a network of wooden walkways.|
Storm interlude from Peter Grimes – 4.13
The Storm from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes.
You’re listening to Somer Valley community radio on 97.5 FM and online at somervalleyfm.co.uk. I’m Rupert Kirkham and this is Classical Break. If you want to hear this programme again, or get your friends to listen go to the website and click LISTEN AGAIN. It’s that simple.
Today in the 100th anniversary year of his birth, we’re listening to music by Benjamin Britten.
Let’s head inland now for another number from Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes. Something one assumes good country folk used to knock back whilst watching the morris dancers do their stuff outside the village pub in days of yore – cakes and ale.
Cakes and Ale from English Folk Tunes – 2.24
When I was a lad, I was lucky enough to sing as a treble in the Choir at New College, Oxford. It was undoubtedly an incredible way to learn about music, and whenever we saw that we were to perform something by Britten our spirits rose. There’s only so much Palestrina and Gibbons you can handle in a week of evensongs!
Our next pieces come from one of the magical experiences Britten gave me as a chorister – the singing of his Christmas collection, ‘A Ceremony of Carols.’
Here are three carols from the piece, Wolcum, There is no Rose and Deo Gracias.
We’ll hear some more music for choirs later, but first I want to play you part of Britten’s song cycle, The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.
The libretto is a series of poems by British poets on the subject of night. It was written in 1943 when Britten and his partner, Peter Pears – had just returned from 2 years in America and Britten was preparing his first large scale opera – Peter Grimes – which we heard about earlier. It’s scored for horn and small string ensemble and the piece has become a central work in both Tenor and Horn repertoire.
In three of the songs, Prologue, Pastoral and Hymn, Peter Pears is the Tenor, Barry Tuckwell plays the Horn and the band is the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer, Benjamin Britten in a recording made in December 1963.
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings – 7.00
Now we’re going back to the chapel to hear another of Britten’s choral works. It’s his Missa Brevis in D and he dedicated it to George Malcom and the boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir. It was first performed in 1959 on the occasion of Malcom’s retirement as organist and choirmaster.
Actually, this performance is by the boys of King’s College Cambridge, with Ian Hare at the organ and Sir David Willcocks conducting.
Missa Brevis in D – 10.05
This is Somer Valley FM and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today the programme features music by Benjamin Britten.
Now it’s back to the song cycles. Britten’s texts for his song cycles operas and other works came from various sources. The text for his song cycle, Les Illuminations – sung in French – probably came from the library of WH Auden, who was a friend of Britten’s with whom he collaborated on a number of projects.
Les Illuminations is based on a set of rather risqué poems by the French poet Rimbaud, written, some say, under the influence of mind-altering substances. They certainly are pretty weird, but quite advanced for around 1873 when they were written.
Arthur Rimbaud was one of the most important precursors of modernism in poetry although his entire output was created in the space of 3 years and it was probably this that attracted Britten. Rimbaud was also ...er ‘connected’ to a fellow poet Paul Verlaine and following a series of rather public scandals involving Verlaine, Rimbaud put away his quill and set off for Asia and Africa as a travelling salesman, never to be heard of again. Britten would have liked that too!
Set for Tenor or Soprano and strings, we’re going to hear 3 ‘Illuminations’ –Fanfare, Ville, and Marine. There’s that sea again. The first and third are sung by a tenor, Peter Pears, in fact, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer and the second by the soprano, Felicity Lott on a 1989 Chandos CD with the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson.
Les Illuminations: Fanfare - Ville - Marine – 5.15
In 1940, just before they bombed Pearl Harbour, the Japanese government commissioned a series of works to mark the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire. The next piece was one of those commissions.
Sinfonia Da Requiem is a symphony written when Britten was 26. It’s in 3 movements, and is probably Britten’s largest orchestral work for the concert hall.
Anyway, the Japanese rejected it because he used Latin titles for the movements taken from the Catholic Requiem and because it was too sombre for them. To be fair, it’s not something you’d play at a children’s party. I remember when I was at school, I used it as interval music for our touring production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It was just about long enough for the interval and suitably demonic for the kind of capers to come in the second half of the play.
Some say that the tone of this piece was influenced by the recent deaths of his Mother and Father.
Here’s the second movement, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox.
Sinfonia da Requiem - Dies Irae – 5.27
I hope I’ve shown you some of the diversity of music produced by this outstanding English composer, Benjamin Britten. He was truly an icon in the musical 20th century. His music is edgy, but accessible and it takes risks. Some of his music doesn’t get played much these days, which is a shame, but in this 100th anniversary year, you are likely to find performances of all kinds from musicians at all levels around the country honouring his contribution to the English musical heritage.
In this programme we haven’t even touched on his contribution to the education of young schoolchildren through his school operas – Noye’s Flood, for example. I hope that in Classical Breaks to come this year we can play you some of this fine music which so many schoolchildren have experienced and which, one hopes, has inspired them to not only tolerate, but actually take an interest in ‘classical’ music amidst the cacophony of sounds and images that are thrown at them every second of the day.
Lecture over. We leave you with Jubilate Deo, a good example of Britten’s simpler writing. It’s a short anthem, written in 1961 at the request of the Duke of Edinburgh for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Goodbye.
Jubilate Deo – 2.21