Archive for Benjamin Britten

Britten – Hymn to St Cecilia

Posted in Music with tags , , , on November 22, 2018 by telescoper

Apparently today is Thanksgiving (whatever that is) but, more importantly, it is also the Feast of Saint Cecilia. That reminded of this wonderful piece of music, which I thought I’d post to mark the occasion. It is the Hymn to St Cecilia, with words by W.H. Auden set to music by Benjamin Britten and performed on this recording by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge conducted by Sir David Willcocks.

Incidentally, 22nd November is also Britten’s birthday; he would have been 105 today.

After I posted about Britten’s War Requiem a couple of weeks ago, some comments appeared at Another Place (i.e. Facebook) about Britten and whether he really was a great composer whose legacy would endure. My view, which I’ve stated on this blog a number of times, is that one should judge artists (and scientists, for that matter) by their best work rather than their worst. In my opinion, Mozart wrote a lot of music that wasn’t very good but if all he’d ever done in his life was write, e.g., Don Giovanni he’d still be regarded as a timeless genus.
Even if you don’t like all of Britten’s music, there are enough masterpieces among his output to guarantee a lasting reputation. I would put Peter Grimes and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings firmly in the category of masterpieces alongside the Hymn to St Cecilia.

Anyway, if you’d like to nominate any works by Britten as examples of his best or worst then please feel free to do so via the Comments Box below.

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Britten: War Requiem

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was back at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for an immensely powerful and moving performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. This vast work is composed for two orchestras (a standard symphony orchestra and a smaller chamber orchestra), two choirs (a chorus of adult voices and a boy’s choir) and three solo vocalists. Last night the soloists were Ailish Tynan (soprano), Gavan Ring (baritone) and Robin Tritschler (tenor), who performed with the combined forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and the boy Choristers of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, all conducted by David Brophy.

You can see the members of the Philharmonia Choir in position in the above photograph, which I took about ten minutes before the performance began; the choristers were out of sight in the gallery above and behind me, near where the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was sitting.

The War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral built to replace the 14th century cathedral that was destroyed along with most of the city in a devastating air raid ion 1940. It’s a remarkable work that juxtaposes settings of traditional liturgical Latin texts against poems by Wilfred Owen. The idea of doing this may have originated with the first poem Britten uses, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which itself deploys words associated with religious services to emphasize the soulless brutality of warfare:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

These settings are sung by soloists accompanied by the smaller chamber orchestra (positioned at the front of the stage) while the more traditional liturgical elements involve the larger forces arrayed behind.

I’ve known this work for many years largely through the classic 1963 recording conducted by Britten himself, with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soprano, tenor and baritone soloists respectively. I’m so familiar with that version that it was at first a little disconcerting to hear very different voices, but that very soon gave way into an appreciation of three very fine artists in their own right. All three were excellent last night, but I have to give extra special plaudits to Ailish Tynan, who sang with extraordinary passion in the Sanctus and Libera Me. The Latin text of the latter section includes:

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.

Ailish Tynan performed this not just as an evocation of the horrors of wars past but also with a sense of anguished foreboding about wars yet to come. It was deeply moving and clearly heartfelt. I found this from her on Twitter this morning:

The first few bars of the War Requiem are enough to tell you right from the start this is music is coming from the same imagination that gave us Peter Grimes and a host of other masterpieces, and the quality of the music is sustained throughout the 85 minutes or so of its duration. There are some wonderful touches in the orchestration, such as the Dies Irae (with a definite nod in the direction of Verdi, but with tricky 7/8 rhythms). The Boys Choir was also used extremely effectively, the fact that they could not be seen (at least by me) adding to the ethereal quality of their voices. In all, it added up to an intense experience, I think for the musicians as well as the audience.

At the end of the music, David Brophy kept his arms (and baton) extended for a considerable time before gradually lowering them to signal the end of the performance. I really appreciated that several seconds of silence, which was immaculately observed by the audience. It’s good to have a time to reflect on what you’ve just heard before the applause begins. When the ovation had died down, the elderly lady sitting next to me (whom I’d never met before) turned to me and said `Wasn’t that wonderful?’. It was only then that I realised how powerfully I’d been affected. I tried to answer, but found I was a bit choked, and all I could get out was “Yes, it was”. I hope that didn’t come across as rude. It’s just that sometimes music expresses things that words can’t convey. Actually, come to think of it, that’s what it’s for.

Anyway, you don’t need to take my word for how good a concert it was, because you can watch the whole thing here:

(Please note that there are quite a few minutes of blank screen before it starts, but it is there!)

Congratulations to all the musicians involved last night for a tremendous performance, and thank you for a wonderful experience. It was a privilege to be there.

The Emerson Quartet

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been an enjoyably rich week for me in terms of cultural pursuits, rounded off in fine style last night with a visit to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for a concert by the Emerson String Quartet of music by Purcell, Britten and Beethoven. On Wednesday I made the mistake of going to a concert without having had any food, so this time I sampled the bar menu at the College before the performance. Very nice fish and chips, with very prompt service.

The first half of the concert consisted of three pieces by Henry Purcell, the Chacony in G Minor and two Fantazias (in D Minor and G Major, respectively). The Chacony (from the Spanish `Chacona’ via the French `Chaconne’) is a set of variations over a ground bass, while the Fantazias have a much freer structure with the instruments often mimicking vocal lines. This was followed by the String Quartet No. 2 in C by Benjamin Britten, the last movement of which includes a Chacony as a deliberate homage to Purcell (whose music Britten admired enormously). It was actually written to commemorate Purcell’s death (on 21st November 1695). Overall, though, this is more reminiscent of the approach of Britten’s friend Dmitri Shostakovich. It is full of jagged figures emerging from a background that alternates between dark and frenetic.

After the interval wine break, it was time for one of my favourite pieces in all music, the sublime String Quartet No. 15 (in A minor) by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 132). I’ve loved this piece for many years and it became even more special to me five years or so ago when I was recovering from illness. Until last night, though, I had never heard it live.

This is a long work, taking over 40 minutes to perform, dominated by the central third movement, which is headed with the words

Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart

I take the liberty of translating the first two words, using my schoolboy German, as “A Holy Song of Thanksgiving”; Beethoven wrote the piece after recovering from a very serious illness which he had feared might prove fatal. The movement begins in a mood of quiet humility but slowly develops into a sense of hope and deeply felt joy. The most remarkable  thing about this movement to me, though,  is that the music seems to possess the same restorative powers that it was written to celebrate. I certainly found it extremely therapeutic when I was unwell.

Hearing the whole piece live has a much greater impact than hearing one movement on record, and I have to admit I found last night’s performance quite overwhelming. Judging by the rapturous applause from the audience in the Dora Stoutzker Hall, I think a great many people realised that they had just heard something very special.

Music from three very different periods, by three very different periods, all played beautifully with great passion and imagination. What more could you ask for?

Well, we did get something extra – an encore in the form of one of Dvorak’s Cypresses (No. 7 to be precise):

R.I.P. Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on July 12, 2015 by telescoper

Ah well. Back in the office on a rainy Sunday afternoon after a few days away trying to catch up before a very busy week next week. I thought I’d pause first, however, to pay my respects to the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose death I learnt of last night. Many tributes have been paid to him already, including several examples of his work on Radio 3 this morning. There’s nothing much I can add to them except to say that he not only had a great voice, but was also a fine actor with a powerful stage presence.

What I can do is post again one of my favourite examples of Jon Vickers, singing the greatest passages in one of the greatest of all operas, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Most people I know who have seen Peter Grimes think it is a masterpiece, and I’m interested to see another physics blog has already discussed this aria. Still, I don’t think Britten is sufficiently appreciated even in the land of his birth. There aren’t that many operas written in English so perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable when we can actually understand what’s going on without reading the surtitles?

I’ve often heard Peter Grimes described as one of the great operas written in English. Well, as far as I’m concerned you can drop “written in English” from that sentence and it’s still true. It’s certainly in my mind fit to put up alongside anything by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and even Mozart.

In this aria it’s not just the extraordinary vocal line, beginning way up among the “head notes” beyond a tenor’s usual range, that makes it such a  powerful piece of music,  but also the tragic poetry in the words. The main character of Peter Grimes is neither hero nor villain, but  a man trapped in his own destiny. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher in storm or starlight
The written character of a friendly fate
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?


The part of Peter Grimes was actually written by Britten specifically to suit the voice of his partner, Peter Pears, who performed the role first. The classic recording of that performance is wonderful, but this later version starring Jon Vickers is quite different, and the inner agony portrayed by Vickers’ voice in the upper register is most moving. For its combination of musical expressiveness and dramatic intensity, this music really does take some beating even if you listen to it on its own outside the context of the opera.

Rest in Peace, Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

The Diary of One who Disappeared

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on May 22, 2015 by telescoper

At the end of a very busy day before I go home and vegetate, I only just have time for a quick post about the concert I attended last night in St George’s Church, Kemptown. It was a convenient venue for me as it is just at the end of my street; my polling station for the recent elections was there too.

Anyway, the title of the concert is taken from the song cycle of the same name composed by Leoš Janáček. It’s a sequence of 21 poems about a young man who falls for seductive gypsy girl and ends up running away from home to be with her, and care for the baby son she turns out at the end of the cycle to have born. There’s also a very tempestuous piano interlude, labelled Intermezzo Erotico in the programme, which (presumably) depicts the circumstances in which the baby was conceived. This work was performed by mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley and tenor Robert Murray accompanied by James Baillieu at the piano (who also played the piano at the recital I attended last week). Three female voices also took part in a few of these songs; they were hidden away in the gallery so it was quite a surprise when they joined in.

Despite being a big fan of Janáček I’ve never heard this music before, and I found it absolutely wonderful. It involves many abrupt and unexpected changes of mood, with soome simple folk-like melodies juxtaposed with much more disturbed and fragmented musical language. At the end, when the young man reveals that he has a son, the tenor reaches up for two stunning top Cs which took me completely by surprise and sent cold shivers down my spine. I must get a recording of this work. As soon as it had finished I wanted to listen to it all over again.

The Diary of One who Disappeared formed the second half of the concert. The first was also very varied and interesting. We began with he two principal singers taking turns at performing a selection of six from a well-known set of 49 Deutsche Volkslieder by Johannes Brahms. Then Robert Murray – who looks somewhat disconcertingly like Shane Warne – performed the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo by Benjamin Britten (his Opus 22). These were the first pieces Britten composed specifically for the voice of his partner Peter Pears and were written way back in 1940. They’re all poems about love in its various forms and I think they’re wonderful, especially Sonnet XXX:

Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi un dolce lume,
Che co’ miei ciechi già veder non posso;
Porto co’ vostri piedi un pondo addosso,
Che de’ mie zoppi non è già costume.
Volo con le vostr’ale senza piume;
Col vostr’ingegno al ciel sempre son mosso;
Dal vostr’arbitrio son pallido e rosso,
Freddo al sol, caldo alle più fredde brume.
Nel voler vostro è sol la voglia mia,
I mie’ pensier nel vostro cor si fanno,
Nel vostro fiato son le mie parole.
Come luna da sè sol par ch’io sia;
Chè gli occhi nostri in ciel veder non sanno
Se non quel tanto che n’accende il sole.

It’s a fine poem in itself but Britten’s setting of it is both beautiful and imaginative. I’m guessing that it’s extremely difficult to sing because the vocal line is very complex and has some very challenging intervals. You can almost imagine it being part of a bel canto opera…

The first half of the concert closed with the Seven Gypsy Songs (Opus 55) by
Antonín Dvořák, by far the most famous of which is Songs My Mother Taught Me.

It was a very fine recital with some lovely music, beautifully sung. In fact the singing was so nice a blackbird outside the church decided to join in during the first half. It was a nicely balanced programme tied together by two recurrent themes: Gypsies and love (and sometimes both at the same time). TheI particularly enjoyed the blend of familiar and unfamiliar. For example, although I know the Sonnets by Britten I’ve only ever heard the classic Britten-Pears version so it was interesting to hear it performed by a very different singer.

Winterreise

Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 21, 2013 by telescoper

I spent this morning doing the crosswords as usual and then had a decidedly wintry journey to the shops and then to campus. It’s not snowing, but cold and windy and pouring with rain. All of which convinced me that it would be appropriate to post something from the recording of Schubert‘s  Winterreise made by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in the year of my birth, 1963. Looking on Youtube, though, I found that some wonderful person has posted the entire song cycle, so here it is.

If you haven’t got time to listen to the whole thing then here are the timings of the various songs together with their catalogue numbers.
0:005:46 Gute Nacht (« Fremd bin ich eingezogen »…) D.911-1
5:477:47 Die Wetterfahne (« Der Wind spielt mit der Wetterfahne ») D. 911-2
7:4810:00 Gefrorene Tränen (« Gefrorne Tropfen fallen ») D. 911-3
10:0113:10 Erstarrung (« Ich such im Schnee vergebens ») D. 911-4
13:1118:18 Der Lindenbaum (« Am Brunnen vor dem Tore ») D. 911-5
18:1922:06 Wasserflut (« Manche Trän aus meinen Augen ») D. 911-6
22:0725:41 Auf dem Flusse (« Der du so lustig rauschtest ») D. 911-7
25:4228:02 Rückblick (« Es brennt mir unter beiden Sohlen ») D. 911-8
28:0330:20 Irrlicht (« In die tiefsten Felsengründe ») D. 911-9
30:2133:38 Rast (« Nun merk ich erst, wie müd ich bin ») D. 911-10
33:3938:17 Frühlingstraum (« Ich träumte von bunten Blumen ») D. 911-11
38:1841:09 Einsamkeit (« Wie eine trübe Wolke ») D. 911-12
41:1043:12 Die Post (« Von der Straße her ein Posthorn klingt ») D. 911-13
43:1346:02 Der greise Kopf (« Der Reif hatt einen weißen Schein ») D. 911-14
46:0348:20 Die Krähe (« Eine Krähe war mit mir ») D. 911-15
48:2150:22 Letzte Hoffnung (« Hie und da ist an den Bäumen ») D. 911-16
50:2354:33 Im Dorfe (« Es bellen die Hunde, es rasseln die Ketten ») D. 911-17
54:3455:31 Der stürmische Morgen (« Wie hat der Sturm zerrissen ») D. 911-,18
55:3256:39 Täuschung (« Ein Licht tanzt freundlich vor mir her ») D. 911-19
56:401:00:29 Der Wegweiser (« Was vermeid ich denn die Wege ») D. 911-20
1:00:301:04:58 Das Wirtshaus (« Auf einen Totenacker ») D. 911-21
1:04:591:06:32 Mut (« Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht ») D. 911-22
1:06:331:09:31 Die Nebensonnen (« Drei Sonnen sah ich am Himmel stehn ») D. 911-23
1:09:321:12:49 Der Leiermann (« Drüben hinterm Dorfe ») D. 911-24

Marsh Flowers

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , on August 21, 2013 by telescoper

I heard a reading of this poem on BBC Radio 3 last night and couldn’t resist posting it here. It’s by Suffolk poet George Crabbe and it came up in the context of a programme about poetry and the music of Benjamin Britten. That gives me the opportunity to plug an anthology of the poems Britten set to music, which is available from the excellent Carcanet Press. Last time I plugged one of their books on here they sent me a free copy. Fingers crossed.

Crabbe is probably most famous for his lengthy work The Borough, part of which features a character called Peter Grimes. It was that work that inspired Britten to write the opera of that name, a true masterpiece if ever there was one.

I didn’t know until yesterday evening that Britten had written other pieces based on Crabbe’s poetry, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear this one, which became one of the Five Flower Songs (Op. 47). It stands on its own, however, as a wonderfully dry piece of comic verse, the plodding meter perfectly conveying the uninspiring nature of the fenland flora described by the text. It’s also full of clever touches, such as the alliteration in Line 4 “sickly scent is seen”.

Here the strong mallow strikes her slimy root,
Here the dull nightshade hangs her deadly fruit:

On hills of dust the henbane’s faded green,
And pencil’d flower of sickly scent is seen.

Here on its wiry stem, in rigid bloom,
Grows the salt lavender that lacks perfume.

At the wall’s base the fiery nettle springs
With fruit globose and fierce with poison’d stings;

In every chink delights the fern to grow,
With glossy leaf and tawny bloom below;

The few dull flowers that o’er the place are spread
Partake the nature of their fenny bed.

These, with our sea-weeds rolling up and down,
Form the contracted Flora of our town.

by George Crabbe (1754-1832).