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War Requiem to Moonrise Kingdom: a Benjamin Britten primer

Editorial Staff

By Nancy Berman

If British composer Benjamin Britten were alive today, he’d be getting ready to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2013, on Nov. 22, the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. In preparation for the centenary celebrations, here’s an introductory glimpse into Britten’s life and music.

Britten is to English music what wine is to French culture: indispensable. From 1795, the year of Henry Purcell’s death, until the late 19th century and the arrival on the English scene of composers like Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, very little seemed to happen in England, musically speaking. Britten emerged in the generation after Holst and Vaughan Williams, and sealed England’s reputation as a re-emerging musical power.

Let’s start with The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946). Very popular with the younger set, this work was originally commissioned for an educational film. True to its name, the listener is guided through the various orchestral instruments, each one playing a variation on a theme by Britten’s musical ancestor, Purcell. At the end, the orchestra is put back together again in a fugal finale.

This work, along with other music by Britten, was featured in Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom. Played on a child’s 1960s plastic turntable, it magically evokes the quirky world of the young protagonist.

Britten was a prolific writer of operas, gravitating towards stories that feature loners who are wrongfully persecuted by the larger community. Britten must have been drawn to such misunderstood outsiders, given both his homosexuality and his pacifism in a country where homosexuality was illegal until a few years before his death, and pro-war patriotism was de rigueur in such a war-torn era.

The opera Peter Grimes (1945) launched Britten to international fame and contributed enormously to the renaissance of English opera. Based on a poem written in 1810 by George Crabbe, the opera tells the story of a fishing village in Suffolk, near Britten’s childhood home. The poem recounts the sad fate of the troubled and unlikeable Peter Grimes, a fisherman who beats his apprentices, loses them in bizarre accidents and finally goes mad: not a sympathetic character.

However, in the hands of the librettist Montagu Slater, together with Britten and the tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s life partner), Grimes becomes, in the words of Pears, “neither a hero, nor a villain.” He is, rather, an outsider, with a good heart but bad luck, shunned by society, and finally forced by the villagers to lose himself permanently at sea. The bad guy isn’t him, it’s each person in the village who doesn’t see him for who he is — each person who can’t find an ounce of compassion for Grimes and his plight.

Musically, Peter Grimes is a sublime invocation of the sea, foghorns and all. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Britten eschewed extreme dissonance to create a more accessible musical soundscape. Britten spent several years composing for film; communication with his audience always came first and foremost.

Britten’s War Requiem is arguably his most poignant work. Written in 1961 to celebrate the consecration of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry (the original church having been destroyed in the Battle of Britain), the work was dedicated to four victims of the Second World War, all friends of the composer. The Great War also plays a role in the work, as Britten intermingles the poetry of First World War poet Wilfred Owen with the Latin texts of the mass for the dead, to chilling effect.

An expression of Britten’s deeply held pacifism, it is almost impossible to listen to the work and not cry. Still, early performances expressed internationalism, hope and reconciliation, featuring the British tenor Pears, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (who just died on Dec. 11, 2012), along with a boys’ choir, a full chorus, a full orchestra, a chamber orchestra and an organ.

And finally, there’s the folk music. Britten loved English folk songs, and made arrangements of them throughout his career. The folk song arrangements reveal his extreme sensitivity, and his embrace of simplicity: if his other works show him to be occasionally ill at ease with the world in which he lived, here we see him comfortably at home.