News Column

Benjamin Britten finally gets his due at centennial

July 11, 2013

YellowBrix

July 11--If you're a composer, there are a couple of good ways to ensure that your work will continue to be played, discussed and thought about after you're gone. One, of course, is to write music of surpassing beauty and skill; another is to maintain an ambiguous relationship with the surrounding musical culture.

Benjamin Britten did both.

The English composer, whose centennial is being celebrated this year -- along with, and somewhat in the shadow of, the bicentennials of both Verdi and Wagner -- offers a classic example of the uncertainties and ironies of artistic reputation.

Britten's status as a creative genius has never been entirely forthright -- not during his lifetime, and not even since his death at age 63 in 1976. By conventional wisdom, he stands with one foot inside the musical pantheon and the other just outside it.

That's not to say that his work has ever been overlooked, or that he labored in the shadows. On the contrary -- Britten found a lasting celebrity with the huge success of his first major opera, "Peter Grimes," in 1945, and his music has never been out of the repertoire since.

But there's often been a sort of asterisk next to his name, as if to suggest that there are questions about his standing. They have to do with biographical matters and musical politics, even both.

In the stylistic wars of the mid-20th century -- when the starkest view of musical history took the position that composers had to be agents of artistic progress -- Britten was often viewed as a throwback. His compositions, rooted in tonality and drawing consciously on centuries' worth of musical tradition, were too easily scorned as regressive.

And as a closeted (although not too deeply closeted) gay man, a leftist and a conscientious objector during World War II, Britten found himself on the wrong side of a number of deeply rooted social divisions. Especially in England -- where the coded homophobic sneer was developed into a high art -- much of the criticism of Britten and his work can strike the modern observer as shockingly personal.

Bay Area presentations

Only in recent decades, as both artistic and social attitudes have become more inclusive, has the situation improved. And now, as we approach the composer's 100th birthday in November, Britten is at last taking his place as one of the great musical voices of the 20th century.

For Bay Area audiences, there will be opportunities in the coming months to explore and rediscover the range of Britten's achievement. This week, the young singers of the Merola Opera Program tackle the dark historical landscape of the composer's first chamber opera, "The Rape of Lucretia." That's followed next week by a new production of "The Turn of the Screw," based on the Henry James novella, at West Edge Opera.

The San Francisco Symphony gets into the act in November with performances of the "War Requiem," Britten's haunting and powerful meditation on both world wars written for the 1962 rededication of Coventry Cathedral. Strangely, however, the orchestra's big Britten celebration is postponed until June 2014, when Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct music from the ballet "The Prince of the Pagodas," as well as the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and "Peter Grimes." (Aside from the Merola offering, the San Francisco Opera, sadly, is not observing the centennial at all.)

Dedicated to craftsmanship

One thing that will emerge clearly through this and other activity is the remarkable fecundity of Britten's musical imagination. His gift announced itself early, as Britten -- the doted-on youngest child of a cultured middle-class family -- embarked on a musical career of unnerving precocity.

A talented pianist, he also wrote voluminous amounts of music as a youth (some of which he later recycled into the charming "Simple Symphony"). His training with the composer Frank Bridge -- whose music served as the basis for his Op. 10, the still striking Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge -- instilled in him a dedication to craftsmanship and an arsenal of technical skills. At the same time, he was pursuing his own musical interests in a variety of directions, beginning a lifelong love of Mahler and a more nuanced fascination with the works of the Second Viennese School (Berg in particular).

Perhaps the most decisive influence in his development, though, was the brief, abortive sojourn that Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, spent in the United States during World War II. This was a heady episode -- including a stay in a Brooklyn apartment whose residents also included W.H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee -- but it only confirmed both men in their attachment to Britain.

British musical institution

From Britten's return home in 1942 -- already at work on "Grimes" -- until his death, he turned himself into something of a national musical institution. He and Pears began the Aldeburgh Festival in the east of England, as a vehicle for his own work and others'. He gave concerts as both pianist and conductor, established programs dedicated to music for children and amateurs, and composed copiously.

The operas lie at the center of Britten's legacy, along with the many other vocal works written for Pears' distinctively high, piercing tenor. They include fearless adaptations of literary masterpieces ("Billy Budd," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Death in Venice"), as well as the comic romp "Albert Herring" and the historical pageantry of "Gloriana," written to mark Elizabeth II's ascendance to the throne.

But there are countless treasures -- some of them still too little known -- scattered among the rest of his catalog. They include the three extraordinary string quartets, as intricate and poignant as anything he wrote; the urbane early concertos for piano and violin; the remarkable works inspired by the mastery of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, which include the Cello Symphony and three quasi-Bachian Suites for Solo Cello; and, of course, the "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," which ingeniously turns a theme from Henry Purcell into an educational tour of the instruments in a standard symphony orchestra.

Social role of music

It's hard to listen to any of this music today and understand how it could ever have been taken lightly or condescended to -- except perhaps under the influence of a particularly constricted view of musical history and its demands.

Britten's music is as sophisticated in its construction, and as uncompromising in its integrity, as anything written during his lifetime or beyond. But it also takes a practical and humane stance toward its listeners, addressing them as thoughtful equals who are susceptible to being charmed, delighted and moved by art, not just awed by its technical complexities.

This was, in its way, a bold and important counterpoise to the modernist narrative that held sway throughout so much of the 20th century. Like his friend and near-contemporary Shostakovich (both of them in turn guided by Mahler's example), Britten made the case for the social role of music -- as a medium for personal and political expression, for communal interaction, and for the creation of sheer beauty that can ravish the senses. It's an achievement that seems all the more valuable and pressing today.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: jkosman@sfchronicle.com

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