Those of us who study music history have gotten into the habit of calling 1685 an annus mirabilis because both JS Bach and GF Handel (along with Domenico Scarlatti) joined the world in that year. As it turns out, however, there appear to be a couple of these “years of wonders,” and it seems that we are in the hundredth anniversary of one such year. The year 1913 saw the birth of both Witold Lutosławski (January 25) and Benjamin Britten (November 22). It also saw the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (May 29). Other notable 1913 babies were the bandleader Woody Herman, US presidents Nixon and Ford, athlete and Olympian Jesse Owens and writer Albert Camus. (And, as my mother recently reminded me, my own maternal grandfather would have turned 100 this September.)
In 2013, the musical community has focused on celebrating the hundredth birthday of Benjamin Britten. The “Britten 100” series was launched in September of 2012 by the Britten-Pears Foundation. Events have included productions of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in six different countries, and performances of the War Requiem all over the world. On the website britten100.org, one can see a calendar of all the events still to take place, listen to representative samples of Britten’s music and watch clips of people like composer John Adams, actor Patrick Stuart and singer Ian Bostridge talk about their experiences with the music of Britten. Additionally, LA Opera has created Britten100/LA, in partnership with the Britten-Pears Foundation, that covers Britten events in the LA-region.
One of the talking heads featured on the website is American director Wes Anderson, whose 2012 film,Moonrise Kingdom, featured the music of Britten — particularly The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — as its “musical backbone.” For many viewers, this soundtrack, which features not just TYPGTTO, but excerpts from Friday Afternoons, Noye’s Fludde, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, provided a primer on Britten’s work. In interviews about the film, Anderson seems to suggest that Britten’s music, which he first encountered as a ten-year-old (he and his older brother appeared in a church/school production of Noye’s Fludde) was extremely influential on his own childhood, and therefore forms a sort of nostalgic heart of his portrayal of childhood in the film. If you haven’t yet seen Moonrise Kingdom, you should consider viewing it. It’s an intimate story of first love told in a unique way. And having the music of Britten (and film composer Alexandre Desplat) on the soundtrack certainly doesn’t hurt matters.
But this year’s events are not limited to concerts featuring Britten’s instrumental music and lavish productions of his extraordinary operas. England’s Royal Mint is honoring the composer on a new 50p coin. The likeness of Queen Elizabeth II will adorn the front of the coin, and on the back, Benjamin Britten’s name is written on two musical staves, separated by the line, “Composer – Born 1913.” A quote from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem appears; the words “Blow Bugle Blow” sit above the top staff, while the following line “Set the wild echoes flying” sits at the bottom. Britten set the Tennyson poem as part of his 1943 song cycle, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. The musical setting of the poem forms the third movement — labeled a Nocturne — of the cycle. (Other movements feature the poems of Charles Cotton, William Blake, Ben Jonson and John Keats.) Peter Pears, longtime collaborator and partner of Benjamin Britten, sang the premiere and recorded the work as well.
The quote, and the overall design of the coin, was the brainchild of Tom Phillips, a visual artist, composer and stage designer. The use of this line from the song cycle seemed like a natural choice to Phillips, who said, “What better clarion call for a musical anniversary could there be than, ‘Blow, bugle, blow: set the wild echoes flying?’” The coin will be released into general circulation around Britten’s birthday, November 22, 2013.
LACO, too, is playing a part in Britten’s centenary. The upcoming concert, Haydn: Cello Concerto, opens with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Frank Bridge was an influential figure in Britten’s early career; the two met when Britten was a teenager. One of the most striking things about this piece is the skill Britten displays in mimicking different styles, from a march to a waltz to an Italian opera aria. It’s a brilliant stylistic collage by Britten, who was still at the beginning of his career when he composed this piece for the 1937 Salzburg Festival.
We are reaching the end of Britten’s centennial year (and Lutosławski’s as well, whose Chain 2 was a dynamic part of LACO’s season opener). Benjamin Britten passed away in 1976 at the age of sixty-three, but over the course of his career he produced more than a dozen operas, an abundance of choral and chamber music and of course the War Requiem. There is no danger of the musical world forgetting Britten’s extraordinary contribution to the canon of Western music, but it is fitting to celebrate the life of such a singular talent with an entire year year filled to the brim with his music.