Benjamin Britten

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Benjamin Britten Britten-Pears Foundation: Aldeburgh 

Link to Kreutzer Quartet at the Aldeburgh Festival

Benjamin Britten was essentially a ‘team player’, and his gregarious nature, expressed both as a performer and a composer, which helped him to create a new British  vernacular that reached out beyond the confines of the musical world. Many of the crucial creative moments in his life happened in domestic environments-an example would be the famous photographs of his working with Rostropovich on the Sonata at the Red House, surrounded by young musicians, entranced at eavesdropping on music history literally, in the making.

Forster is only represented in our exhibit through his overarching mandate; but here he is, chatting about ideas with Tippett, whilst Britten composes furiously. Of course, this is just as illustrative of contrasting philosophies of musical production. Tippett was almost unable to compose without generating ideas, philosophies, to stimulate the creative act. Britten, it seemed, could not stop the music that poured out of him. As he put it : ‘I do not think easily in words’. Music was his medium.

Tippett was a brilliantly effective conductor, not because of any wonderful stick technique, but more because of his abilility to communicate, and to communicate with whomever was in front of him. Towards the end of his life he indefatigably worked with young people, with youth orchestras, and to encourage amateurs. He told me of his delight at being told that the ‘GPO String Quartet’ was playing his first three quartets. He was even more delighted when they wrote to him pointing out that his 4th Quartet was far to difficult for them, and therefore, they were returning the scores. At the 1953 St Ives festival he worked with amateur musicians from his native Cornwall. John Amis reviewed the concerts.

‘Local Cornish choirs took part in choral and orchestral items and particularly distin- guished themselves in Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb conducted by Michael Tippett, a co-director of the Festival.’’

Amis did put his finger on the problem of access openness in such a venture; opening the artistic salon was all very well, but who would come?

 ‘The attendances at the Festival were small mainly due to the programmes which were too specialized to break new ground with the locals, not sufficiently interesting or star-studded to bring visitors from London or abroad…’

Tippett gently mocked some of my attempts to get beneath his philosophical skin. A year of so before his death, I asked him what other music he liked to listen to. “Oh, dear boy,” he smiled. “Why would I, when there’s daytime television?”

Tippett was grateful for the support that Britten offered him after the Second World War. Britten’s intense composition schedule, gave him the opportunity to talk with E.M Forster-Throughout Tippett’s career writers had a greater impact on this development than musicians:

 [Tippett] ‘Ben and Peter generously invited me to stay with them in Aldeburgh (1948), where I would have a holiday. They were quite well-to-do by then. ‘We’ll look after you, you don’t have to do anything,’ Peter said, ‘the place is thick with servants.’ It was at that time that Ben was writing Billy Budd, and his librettist, E.M. Forster, was also staying in the house. While Ben composed during the day, Forster and I had long conversations about literature and the writing of opera.’

NPG 6326,Edward Morgan Forster,by Feliks Topolski

We musicians are neurotically concerned with our links to the past; I was lucky enough, as a teenager, to meet and begin collaborating with Hans Werner Henze. Like any collaboration, this was a bumpy one. But part of the excitement was the feeling of being part of a continuity of artists, which had included Britten. Later, the composer David Matthews wrote pieces for me, using manuscript paper which had been cut to Britten’s requirements in the 1970’s; I felt a little closer to this dialogue, this continuity.

Michael Tippett gently reported a familiar moment, the ‘passing of the flame’. Although he and Tippett were of the same generation, Tippett’s was a longer, harder path, his succeeding Britten’s, even supplanting it. Perhaps Britten knew this:

 [Michel Tippett] ‘After the performance Britten came backstage, congratulated my soloists most warmly and patted me on the shoulder, lightly, and without condescension. Even then he was already showing signs of the illness that was to kill him in 1976.’

The Musical Times, Vol. 94, No. 1326 (Aug., 1953), pp. 375-376, The Musical Times, Vol. 94, No. 1326 (Aug., 1953), pp. 375-376, Conversation with Michael Tippet, London, 1995, Those twentieth century blues, Michael Tippett, Pimlico, London 1994,  Bohemian Fifths, Hans Werner Henze, Faber and Faber, London, 1998, P.296