Benjamin Britten: Music and poetry, attendant muses at the grinding gears
Leonard Bernstein once said of Benjamin Britten that his music was ‘dark, there are gears grinding and not quite meshing . . . making great pain’. That seems true. Certainly, there is no transcendence in Britten, as there is in Elgar, for example. The Dream of Gerontius is a work of faith and Christian journeying, but Britten was having none of Cardinal Newman’s agenda. Nor is there that charged explosion of sensuality Elgar achieved with In The South, though the composer does let his hair down occasionally, as in the Four Cabaret Songs or the finale of Spring Symphony. Even Elgar’s melancholy seems schooled in hopefulness by comparison with Britten. Britten is simply dark, and anxiety is close to the surface. Neither could Britten luxuriate, as Delius does, or glitter with delight, like Walton. But what Britten does have, something those other composers do not have to same degree, is the most exquisite ear for poetry and the ability to set is superbly. To a very real degree, it is poetry that gets Britten through his dark nights of the soul.
Britten was lucky that one of his earliest friendships was with Auden, and, naturally enough, being with a poet of this stature couldn’t help but rub off on a sensitive and intelligent personality like Britten’s. There are many early settings of Auden, On This Island being one of the best known. Britten and Auden had a falling out later on, but I don’t think Britten ever forgot what he learnt from Auden about the intimacies possible when music and poetry work in harmony. True, Britten was rather scornful of Auden’s and Kallman’s text for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, but that scorn was based on a profound working knowledge of how to set dramatic texts for opera. Britten showed he could do it marvellously well in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The other opera librettos may not always be settings of poetry, but they are certainly poetic. When Peter Grimes sings ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades . . .’ it is certainly something poetic we are hearing. The fact that is dramatic too just goes to show how effective Britten’s settings could be when his imagination was fired by a suitable subject.
I was fortunate enough to once meet Britten at the 1970 Adelaide Festival. He was one of the first composers I started collecting on LP. People of a certain generation remember those Decca recordings with their texts in print size that made them easy to read, unlike today’s CD equivalents. Well, I was a particularly green student at the time, but I knew Britten had been interested in setting King Lear, and I asked him about that. There was an ominous silence, but I often think that would have been a more suitable final work for a composer of his temperament, rather than Death In Venice with its chilled ecstasies and gamelan playfulness. It’s one of those ‘what if’ questions we ask about artists we like. Fellini’s Mastorna project or Wagner’s proposed final symphonies also come to mind.
One of the first recordings I bought had Les Illuminations on it. I didn’t understand the full ramifications of the work at the time, but could feel Britten’s identification with the text. Somehow, music and text are integrated naturally, instinctively. You could say the same thing of all of Britten’s setting of poetry texts. There are no false notes. There is a real marriage of true minds, the muses of music and poetry meeting equally on Helicon, neither subsuming the other, each requiring the other’s succour.
The War Requiem is a real act of transfigurative creative feeling. There had been a kind of precursor when Mahler, in his Symphony No 8, set the Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and then completed the work with the last part of Goethe’s Faust, but Britten was doing something more adventurous, at least from a literary viewpoint. Since Britten cannot find the transfigurative moment to redeem the deaths memorialised on the dedication page of the War Requiem, or fill Coventry cathedral with ‘Take me away’ chords out of Gerontius, he does something quite original. He inserts the poetry of Wilfred Owen throughout and, just when we might be expecting the summons to a higher cause, what we get is the sheer awfulness of war, the ‘pity of war’, the imagined reconciliation in hushed remonstrance in ‘Strange Meeting’. To think that this work was once regarded by a certain section of the musical avant-garde as the white elephant of British music speaks of their failure to react creatively to poetry in the way that Britten did so effectively in this work.
However, the composer pacifist still had to deal with his own violent demons, and poetry seems to be one of the ways he accommodated what must have seemed, in the wake of the Second World War with its apocalyptic severances, the failure of art to prevent the facts of the Holocaust and the boundless dead. Britten played with Menuhin at the end of the war for survivors of the concentration camps, and the memories he brought back from that time prompted the song cycle he composed not long after, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The muscular confrontation with the fact of suffering brought forth a cycle in which Donne’s verse starkly counterpoises the music. The counterweight to this confrontational style is the calm and lucid settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare in Nocturne, where Britten finds the kind of equipoise so often missing elsewhere. On the edge of sleep, or in the idea of sleep itself, the composer finds repose. To use Yeats’ words, the ceremony of innocence may be drowned (though not in most of the works written for children such as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), but the memory that one was once innocent—Britten reaches at that with all his yearning. You still wake to find the blood and pain of the world, but during the cycle one has been enchanted, a little. Some of Puck’s juice has been sprinkled in our eyes too. The moment passes, but the moment was beautiful. And one doesn’t forget that it was real. Britten has made it so. Poetry has helped the composer get there. Perhaps, essentially, Bernstein is wrong. The gears do mesh, because if they didn’t there would be no music, no memorability, no greatness of spirit, which there clearly is in these compositions.
Britten was not a parochial composer, for all the jokiness about ‘Addleborough’ (Aldeburgh). The languages set include French, Russian, German, Italian, American and British poets. His sensitivity encompasses Soutar and Hardy, Michelangelo and Jonson, nervous fibres reaching out for any memorable words to centre what seems, at heart, a certain pessimism. If one takes account of all the poetry settings Britten composed music for, and thinks of the literary imput from Crabbe, Melville, James and Mann, and others, then one really is prompted to consider Britten one of poetry’s, and language’s, most eloquent advocates. A composer as subtle and as various in his or her choice of texts, and the ability to set them as memorably as Britten: the muses were here in agreement, and they bestowed their graces liberally, even though darkness is clearly visible and any joy achieved is hard won.