October 03, 2013
Choir stalls at Salisbury Cathedral
Throughout 2013 music organizations across the world are performing works by British composer Benjamin Britten to celebrate his centenary. The Britten-Pears Foundation, which promotes Britten’s music and the musical output from his partnership with tenor Peter Pears, has masterminded the celebrations and created a fascinating website that is well worth a visit: britten100.org
Britten came to international prominence with his post-war opera Peter Grimes (1945). The opera’s success, the first smash hit to come out of the UK since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the 17th century, sparked a national confidence and creativity that led to some of the defining operas of the 20th and 21st century, from composers including Michael Tippett (The Midsummer Marriage, 1952), Harrison Birtwistle (Punch and Judy, 1966/7), Thomas Adès (The Tempest, 2003) and George Benjamin (Written on Skin, 2012). And that’s the flag wave over!
Thinking back it seems as if many key experiences in my musical development were played out to a soundtrack of Britten. In 1989 I was six years’ old when I sat in the stalls of Salisbury Cathedral to watch my older sister in Britten’s Noah’s Flood. I remember the raucous Kyrie Eleison as the animals entered the ark – including Nikki in a large papier-mâché chicken’s head.
Just a few years’ later, as a chorister in Salisbury Cathedral, I was singing Britten’s sacred choral music regularly. I was always delighted to see the Te Deum in C and Jubilate in C on the schedule and, I admit, a little less delighted to see the Missa Brevis in D listed! One of the most exciting experiences as a chorister was performing and recording Britten’s Spring Symphony with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Monteverdi Choir. To be part of music making of that high quality was fairly intimidating and hugely thrilling. You can still buy the recording, should you wish!
I was a high school trumpet player when I first heard Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings which, though to this day I have never mastered, in part inspired me to become a horn player. Studying music in undergrad I played in a concert performance of Paul Bunyan and had great fun playing A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra at the end of year festival. The professors took over the percussion section and much castanet-based hilarity ensued.
In recent years I’ve seen outstanding productions of Death in Venice, The Turn of the Screw and Peter Grimes thanks to English National Opera’s under 30s ticket promotion, Access all Arias, and this July I was lucky to see the rarely performed Gloriana at the Royal Opera House. I’m excited that there’s a lot more Britten to discover – next up is Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge which LACO performs in October. When I look back I expect I’ll find it in the memory bank filed under ‘the California years’.
Learn more about this month’s concert, click here!
New to Britten’s music?
These pieces are a good place to start:
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Te Deum and Jubilate in C
The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
“Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes