For most British people growing up in the 1960s, the soundtrack of the nation and the age was The Beatles. But for a minority of us, those who loved a different kind of music —
The rough singing of solo voices unamplified, echoing tunes without harmonies, reaching down into the earth;
Exquisite clouds of choral sound, ringing round medieval churches;
A chamber music, more like that of 16th and 17th century viol ensembles than anything from classical Vienna;
The sheer power of the post-Mahlerian, post-Debussy symphony orchestra, discovered not only through LPs but year by year through the Proms and the heroic public commitment of the BBC, on radio and television,
Above all, a strange new artform: English opera (a thing not known before).
For us, it was Benjamin Britten whose imagination most intensely shaped and colored the way we heard our world.
“Such a suitable name for musical export!” purred my music teacher. I loathed his patriotic smugness and the cheapness of the joke, but loved the music more.
My mother said I discovered Britten in the womb, kicking her for the first time at the sound of his Te Deum, one candlelit winter choral evensong in the glorious building of King’s Chapel, Cambridge.
Certainly, when I was little, school years were interwoven with his children’s pieces, and most of all, by Friday Afternoons and one song in particular:
Old Abram Brown is dead and gone,
You’ll never see him more.
He used to wear a long brown coat
That buttoned down before.
And I remember how we put together St. Nicholas, and the sheer physical excitement of the solo treble’s cry: God be glorified!
It seems now, perhaps absurdly, that I already then recognized that this was music not only written for children but by someone who knew what it was like to be a child.
A few years later, one of the very first operas I saw was Curlew River, performed by a group of Cambridge undergraduates in the beautiful 14th century church of Little St. Mary’s. The darkness of the building, and the eerie, wailing instrumental sounds and echoing scraps of plainchant from the singers disturbed and haunted me. In the days that followed, I could not shake them out of my head (and I remember them still).
Not long after, as a callow 16- or 17-year-old, high up in the cavernous spaces of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, I found myself one night confronted by an opera on a far grander scale, Billy Budd. I had thought, when I agreed to go, that I would not like it and began by resisting the sourness of the opening string music and the bleakness of a vocal style more like speech than singing. But bit by bit, the music slipped its bony hands around my heart, and by the end, I was gripped over by the malevolence and power of a score I understood was not only operatic, but symphonic. Most of all, it was the brutality of the crowd scenes on the deck of that claustrophobic ship that astonished me: the heaving layers of sound; choruses of men and boys; the anguish of the protagonists, and an orchestral color not quite like anything I’d heard before, as black as night and yet translucent as a sheet of mica.
This, I think, was the moment when I realized that here was an artist of deep paradoxes, the creator of a music both light and dark, beautiful and ugly, backward- and forward-looking, seeming so clearly to mean one thing, and then in an instant, revealing it could as well mean just the opposite.
And the man too seemed a paradox. For Britten in those days was more than a composer in our country: he was a public figure; an eminence; a cultural, moral even political leader, and I fear not always — at least for my generation — in an entirely admirable way.
Of course, we loved and cheered that he and Peter Pears lived the life of an openly gay couple in an age when such things were forbidden (homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967, in Scotland only in 1980). And we were fascinated that as a teenager, he had wanted to study with Alban Berg in Vienna, that he had lived in America, that he had returned to the U.K. during the war as a pacifist and conscientious objector, and that he had done so much to stir up the public musical life of our sea-surrounded country, to bring music into schools, to transform British concert and operatic life through new festivals and new repertoire and new concert programming. And we listened when, in public statements — and particularly in his famous Aspen speech — he outlined his ideal of a composer who responded first and foremost to the here and now, serving and writing for those alive in our own time, and especially taking music to those who otherwise would never have had a chance to hear it.
But at the same time, mad as we were for the newer continental forms of European modernism and new sounds drifting over the ocean from America, I and my friends also found ourselves resisting, sometimes with contempt, his music’s apparently obvious simplicity, which seemed to us far too disturbingly old-fashioned, too naive and tinkling, and at the same time unattractively sinister, as though great subjects were being touched on but then somehow avoided. “Note up, note down!” as one of us said, dismissing Britten’s latest opera (it was Owen Wingrave, I remember) with all the confidence of youth, and the rest of us laughed in reassuring self-congratulation.
I also remember how some of us — in the narrow little world in which I spent most of my time — felt snobbishly disappointed by the cultural politics of Britten’s music. We were young Turks, self-consciously, and we wanted him to stand up for the brave and new, to make outright declarations, to show us the way forward (our way, not his!), to be “modern” in the hackneyed way we understood that word, to stand for “progress” and for “change.” Why did his music so often seem to look backward, why did he let himself be seduced by nostalgia for the past?
Beyond his music, we were vaguely revolted by a sense, gleaned from gossip and a casual reading of the newspapers, that he had somehow transformed into the darling of what we knew to be the odious and conservative ruling classes of our country. What was an artist doing, we asked, cozying up to the enemy, the dreaded “Establishment,” appearing in newspapers photographed with royalty and (according to secondhand reports) delighting in the company of people who were rich and powerful and — oh, worst of all! — lived “comfortably”? And what on earth did he mean by accepting the offer of a peerage and becoming … Lord Britten of Aldeburgh?
In other words, we rebelled against him, against what he stood for and against the almost creepy power that he seemed to have over our national musical life.
One day in 1972, I visited another younger and already very well-known British composer whom I greatly revered and still do: Peter Maxwell Davies. As it happens, Britten and Davies were quite well acquainted, but of that I was unaware. I was on my own in London! This was the first time I had met a real composer! I was so excited.
He asked me: “Which modern composers do you most admire?”
I quickly named the usual gods of modernism, and exasperated by my childish predictability, he shot back: “So who are the composers you most dislike?”
“Britten and Shostakovich,” I answered without hesitation (both were still living and writing at that time).
Davies’ firm answer took me by surprise: “That means that those two — Britten and Shostakovich — are precisely those composers whose music you should be studying with the greatest care.”
No one had quite said that to me before… although it is a most important truth: that you should always pay the closest attention to what you do not know and to what you do not love and to what you are disturbed by.
And so, a little shaken, I returned somewhat meekly to Britten’s music, as I later did to Shostakovich, and inspired by Davies, tried to teach myself to listen in a different way.
I think the turning point for me was Death in Venice. Of course, the choice of subject matter — Mann’s exquisitely painful elegy for the death of that high culture he loved most of all — was a brilliant one from any point of view. And the story of an elderly man’s illicit, agonizing and unrequited passion for a beautiful young Polish boy was so stark in its moral message that, as I remember it, dissent and criticism from the usual arbiters of taste seemed strangely muted, as though the Lernaean Hydra had been momentarily stunned.
But beyond all of this and on what for me was certainly a higher plane, it seemed that the captivating, shimmering, gamelan-like sound-world of this, Britten’s last opera, was something quite new and different, a step into an unknown world oddly beyond anything that I had listened to before, by him or anyone else. Perhaps my reaction was partly sentimentality, for I had heard a rumor that the composer was dying. But really that was not it. In truth, it was the end… and it was the music that clinched it:
(The Hotel Manager watches Aschenbach go out to the deserted beach. He goes to his usual chair. Tadzio, Jaschiu, a few other boys and Tadzio’s sisters come on to the beach. Tadzio and Jaschiu start a game together; the other children watch. The game becomes rougher with Jaschiu dominating. The other children become frightened. Jaschiu gets Tadzio down; he kneels on his back. The children cry out. Jaschiu presses Tadzio’s face into the sand. The other children run off.)
Aschenbach (trying to get up): Ah, no!
(Jaschiu suddenly lets Tadzio go and runs off. Tadzio slowly gets up as he is called.)
Chorus (off): Adziù! Adziù! Adziù!
(At a clear beckon from Tadzio, Aschenbach slumps in his chair. Tadzio continues his walk far out to sea.)
And, as though sound itself were rising from that sea, like a wave suspended in the air, there follow the opera’s closing bars, for orchestra alone and with what still seems to me perhaps the most beautiful and heartfelt melody that Britten ever wrote.
Gerard McBurney is artistic programming advisor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and creative director of Beyond the Score. His original compositions include orchestral works, a ballet, a chamber opera, songs and chamber music as well as many theater scores. He also is well known for his reconstructions of various lost and forgotten works by Dmitri Shostakovich. His reconstruction of the recently discovered fragment of Shostakovich’s opera Orango was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in December 2011.