A bluffer’s guide to Britten

As those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed, I’ve been listening to a lot of Benjamin Britten over the past six weeks or so. (Indeed, this blog is named after one of his works.)

This follows a visit to the Red House with my parents while on holiday in Aldeburgh during August. I’d always liked what I’d heard of Britten’s work (mostly his choral music, and especially War Requiem), but hadn’t really appreciated just how much I was unaware of. The Red House gives such a vivid sense of Britten and Pears as people that I decided it was about time I explored Britten’s work more thoroughly – especially with his centenary coming up in 2013.

This was helped by a very kind gift from my sister of the EMI Collector’s Edition, 37 CDs covering a wide range of his works, and John Bridcut’s excellent Faber Pocket Guide to Britten, which I would say is a must-read for discovering Britten, both as a composer and as a person.

Anyway, my reason for mentioning all this is that I was just dipping into an old favourite book of mine, Bluff Your Way In Music by Peter Gammond, which includes the following entry for Britten. I’ve always enjoyed this entry (and indeed the book as a whole) for its combination of humour and genuine, well-informed appreciation:

Britten wrote the kind of music that always sounds like it is about to break into a tune — but doesn’t. He wrote two kinds of works; vocal, which all sound as if they were written for Peter Pears to sing (and were), and non-vocal, which all sound as if they were written for Peter Pears to sing (and may have been but he was busy at the time). […]

Britten wrote uncompromisingly modern (but mostly diatonic) music and turned it out with a regularity and artistic acumen only equalled by Rossini in his productive days. There ought to be some way of dismissing his work lightly. But its peculiar personal poetry (a mixture of Grimm’s fairy tales and Peter Pears) is so utterly compelling that everyone has been forced to admit that he was probably a real genius.

His musical emotional world has been summed up as “a deep nostalgia for the innocence of childhood” (a liking for boys’ choirs), a “mercurial sense of humour” (obsession with death and war) and “a passionate sympathy with the victims of prejudice or misunderstanding” (Peter Pears).

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