'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

28 December 2010

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Benjamin Britten was born on the feast of Saint Cecilia, November 22nd. 1913 in Lowestoft Suffolk. Edward Benjamin Britten began to compose at the age of  nine. He studied under Frank Bridge and at the Royal College of Music. One of his earliest successes was 'Les Illuminations' (a song cycle set to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud). He was a conscientious objector and lived in the United States from 1939-1942. He wrote all sorts of music including the monumental anti war pieces  'War Requiem' and 'Sinfonia da Requiem'. He was friends with, and collaborated on various projects with Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden (an anti war film). 
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 Throughout his career he had other  associations such as the actor David Hemmings, who was a starring boy soprano in many of Britten's earlier stage works. In 1947 he founded the Aldeburgh Festival. In 1976, just a few months before his death, he became the first musician to be made a peer with the title Baron Britten of Aldeburgh, in the County of Suffolk. Peter Pears was Knighted in 1978. 

His and Pears life together was one of the greatest loves and creative collaborations of the twentieth century. When Benjamin Britten met Peter Pears in the thirties they began a partnership that lasted until Britten's death in 1976. So strong was this relationship that it is difficult to find a mention or photograph of one without reference to the other. Britten wrote most of his songs, parables, music and operas for Pears to interpret. The tenor Pears had a light voice of beautiful tone and it is the benchmark for the realisation of the works of Benjamin Britten, who obviously wrote for and was influenced by that voice that he loved so much. In a book 'Britten, Voice and Piano' by Graham Johnson, a pianist, specialising in accompanying, who worked with Britten and Pears when they were old-ish and he was young, he says that he noticed, when working on Death in Venice with Pears, that a harmony when Aschenbach sees Tadzio - 'Here comes Eros, his very self' Act 1 scene 5:  was the same as one near the end of the Michelangelo Sonnets. He commented on this to Britten, who said "Look at the direction on the second to last line (of the sonnets)". The direction was "Sempre pp", i.e. "always pianissimo". The code of course means "Always Peter Pears". Johnson said he found this intentional connection between the first and last works dedicated to Peter very moving. In November 1975, Britten was ailing and in Venice. I was there at the same time. Perhaps I unknowingly bumped into him in the Piazza. He returned to England, continued to write and on the 4th December 1976 he died of heart failure in the arms of Peter Pears.  In Pears words  "the only thing he regretted was leaving me" Peter Pears died ten years later of a heart attack on the 3rd of April 1986. He was buried next to Benjamin Britten in their grave at Aldeburgh.
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The Compositions of Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten's  first compositions were made at the age of about five but at the age of nineteen began his main body of work that are shown below. There were also other works that have not been given an official number.
Sinfonietta Op. 1     1932
Phantasy Quartet Op. 2
A Boy Was Born, Op. 3. For mixed voices   1933
Simple Symphony Op. 4 based on earlier youthful compositions. 1934
Te Deum in C major Op. 5 suite for piano
Suite for violin and piano Op. 6   1935
Friday Afternoons, Op. 7. For children's voices and piano
Our Hunting Fathers, 
Op. 8. Texts by W. H. Auden and others. For high voice and orchestra   1936
Soirees Musicales Op. 9
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op. 10   1937
On This Island, Op. 11. Texts by W. H. Auden. For high voice and piano
Mont Juic Op. 12
Piano Concerto Op. 13    1938
Ballad of Heroes, Op. 14. Text by W. H. Auden and Swingler. For tenor or soprano, chorus, and orchestra. 1939
Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra Op. 15
Young Apollo Op. 16 Piano and strings
Les Illuminations, Op. 18. Text by Arthur Rimbaud. For high voice and strings.
Canadian Carnival Op. 19
Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20
Diversions for piano (left hand) and Orchestra Op. 21   1940
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, 
Op. 22. For tenor and piano.
Introduction and Rondo alla Burlesque Op 23 No 1
Mazurka Elegiaca Op 23 No 2
Matinees Musicales Op. 24   1941
String Quartet No 1 Op 25
Scottish Ballad Op. 26 Two Pianos
Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27 Text by W. H. Auden.   1942
A Ceremony of Carols, 
Op. 28. Texts by Robert Southwell and others. For treble voices and harp
Prelude and Fugue Op.29 for strings    1943
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30. Text by Christopher Smart. For soloists, chorus, and organ
Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings, Op. 31. Texts by various authors.
Festival Te Deum, 
Op. 32. For chorus and organ   1944
Four Sea Interludes Op 33a   1945
Passacaglia from Peter Grimes Op. 33b 
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, 
Op. 35. For high voice and piano
String Quartet No 2 Op 36  
Instruments of the Orchestra (Young Person’s Guide) a film Op 34  1946
Occasional Overture Op. 38
Canticle I : My beloved is mine, 
Op. 40. Text by Quarles. For high voice and piano   1947
A Charm of Lullabies, 
Op. 41. For mezzo-soprano and piano
Saint Nicholas, 
Op. 42. Text by Eric Crozier. For tenor, chorus, and orchestra     1948
The Beggars Opera Op 43
Spring Symphony, 
Op. 44. For soloists, chorus, and orchestra    1949
A Wedding Anthem ( Amo Ergo Sum ), 
Op. 46. Text by Ronald Duncan. For soprano, tenor,chorus, and organ
Five Flower Songs, 
Op. 47. For chorus    1950
Lachrymae Op 48a
Six Metamorphoses after Ovid Op 49   1951
Canticle II : Abraham and Isaac, 
Op. 51. For alto, tenor, and piano   1952
Winter Words, 
Op. 52. Text by Thomas Hardy. For high voice and piano   1953
Canticle III : Still falls the rain, 
Op. 55. Text by Edith Sitwell. For tenor, horn, and piano   1954
Hymn to St. Peter, 
Op. 56a. For choir and organ   1955
Op. 56b. For choir and organ.
The Prince of the Pagodas Op 57    1956
Songs from the Chinese Op 58    1957
Nocturne, Op. 60. For tenor, seven obbligato instruments, and string orchestra   1958
Six Hoelderlin-Fragments, 
Op. 61. For high voice and piano
Cantata Academica, 
Op. 62. For soloists, chorus, and orchestra    1959
Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63. For boys' voices and organ
Sonata in C for Cello and Piano Op 65   1961
War Requiem, 
Op. 66. Text from the Latin " Missa Pro Defunctis " and the poems of Wilfred Owen. For soprano, tenor, and baritone solos, mixed chorus, boys' choir, chamber orchestra, organ, and full orchestra
Psalm 150, 
Op 67. For children's voices and instruments    1962
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra Op 68   1963
Cantata Misericordium , 
Op. 69. For tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra
Nocturnal Op 70 for guitar (playing in background)
Suite for Cello Op 72    1964
Gemini Variations Op 73 quartet for two players   1965
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, 
Op. 74. For baritone and piano
Voices for Today, Op. 75. For chorus of men, women, and children, and organ
The Poet's Echo, 
Op. 76. Text by Aleksandr Pushkin. For high voice and piano
The Building of the House Overture 
Op. 79 overture with or without chorus     1967
Second Suite for Cello Op 80
Children's Crusade, 
Op. 82. Text by Bertolt Brecht. For children's voices and orchestra     1968
Suite for Harp Op 83    1969
Who are these children ?, 
Op. 84. Text by Soutar. For tenor and piano
Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, 
Op. 86. Text by T. S. Eliot. For countertenor, tenor, baritone, and piano    1971
Third Suite for Cello Op 87
Canticle V: The death of St. Narcissus, Op. 89. Text by T. S. Eliot. For tenor and harp     1974
Suite on English Folk Tunes:A time there was… Op. 90
Sacred and Profane, Op. 91. For unaccompanied voices    1975
A Birthday Hansel, 
Op. 92. For high voice and harp
Op. 93. Text by Robert Lowell. Dramatic cantata for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra
String Quartet No 3 Op 94
Welcome Ode, Op. 95. For young people's chorus and orchestra    1976

The Operas
The great influences on Britten's music as far as I am concerned were Peter Pears, the sea, his homosexuality and his pacifism.

Paul Bunyan. Op 17  1941       Libretto by W.H.Auden. An Operetta first performed at Columbia University, New York in 1941. A moral fable of a band of honest loggers compromising beliefs from the innocence and cooperation of brotherhood to the trials of progress.

Peter Grimes. Op 33 1945    Derived from the poem of George Crabb 'The Borough' The most famous and successful of his operas first produced in 1945. Grimes is interrogated about the accidental death of his apprentice. He finds a new boy and soon mistreats him until the boy falls from a cliff and Grimes madness leads to his death at sea. A psychological drama of sublimated love and madness. The anguish of the torn emotions of Grimes is 0one of the great portraits in opera.

The Rape of Lucretia. Op 37  1946   In 1946 he moved from the grandness of Grimes to the chamber opera  whose theme is the destruction of virtue and beauty. Poetic, inventive, ritualistic and interpreting the ancient tale of Ovid via the play of Andre Obey into the Judaeo-Christian viewpoint.

Albert Herring. Op 39  1947    From a story by Guy de Maupassant. Village innocent becomes May King when no virgin queens can be found. He gets drunk and grows up. All ends happily, which is rare in Britten's operas. The gentle humour and  kindness of the lead character is a simple gem.

The Little Sweep. Op 45  1949   A Children's opera about a boy who gets stuck in the chimney.

Billy Budd. Op 50  1951    The trial and execution of a good man caught up in the turmoils of life onboard a warship.

Gloriana . Op 53  1953    Written for the Coronation of Elizabeth II but I believe she either did not like the way in which Elizabeth I was portrayed or perhaps she did not like the music but as unlikely as it seems I once heard that she walked out (perhaps not). Her musical tastes alas, are not one of her many  outstanding qualities. It remained unperformed for many years but has now returned to the repertoire and I consider it my favourite Britten opera. The final monologue being one of the most moving segments in opera. - at least the Sarah Walker performance I have seen on video.

The Turn of the Screw. Op 54  1954    Everyone knows this ghost story of the governess and the torment of the sexually abused young Miles. An intelligent and profound insight into the tale that I have seen many times in both opera and the many films drawn from this story by Henry James.

Noye's Fludde. Op 59  1957     Meant to be performed by ordinary people in a place other than a theatre just like the Medieval Chester Miracle Plays, this is the story God, Mr and Mrs Noye and the flood.

A Midsummer Night's Dream. Op 64  1960    Based on Shakespeare's play. 

Curlew River. Op 71  1964    This parable for church performance is one of the great works that first caught my attention. Several years back I and some opera fans decided we wanted to mount a production of this in the Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. We gathered the interest and commitment of several of Australia's leading singers, a director from the National company and other musicians. They were all prepared to do it for no pay because the work itself inspired them so much everyone wanted to participate. Like many of my plans it failed to eventuate. Not through lack of enthusiasm by the artists - just my cowardice and  laziness. In 1988 I was lucky to see a performance of Sumidagawa (Sumida River) which is the Medieval Japanese Noh-play upon which Britten based this work. The Kabuki  styled production starred  Japans 'Very Important Intangible Cultural Property' (or Living National Treasure) Nakamura Utaemon who was 71 at the time. I recall clearly the standing ovation by an audience unaccustomed to this style but overcome by true grace, beauty, style and  genius.

The Burning Fiery Furnace. Op 77  1966          Another church parable

The Golden Vanity Op 78  1966       A vaudeville for boys and piano after the old English ballad

The Prodigal Son. Op 81  1968       The third church parable

Owen Wingrave. Op 85  1970     A philosophical work about a young man and his stand against his ancestral past. Made for Television.

Death in Venice. Op 88  1973      The last great opera and dedicated to the work that has inspired me for many years. There is a page of this story on this site.   The image of Aschenbach being seduced into death by the obsession of beauty, personified in the character of the boy Tadzio, to me reveals much of the life of Britten. He wrote mainly for the male voice and many his stories revolved  around  mans destruction of, or by, the innocence or beauty of the young male. When the film of the Opera was due to be made Peter Pears (left) was not well and Australian singer Robert Gard (right), who had a great success in the role of Aschenbach here in Australia, went to England to stand in during rehearsals but as it turned out he eventually took over the role when the film was made. I was lucky to have known Robert Gard many years ago and shared a drink  after  performances here.

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