the music of Benjamin Britten

BrittenJames Wood at The London Review of Books:

For someone growing up with the music of Benjamin Britten, it was sometimes hard to recall that his last name was not ‘Britain’. The race that Nietzsche had deemed heavy-hoofed and unmusical, whose last truly great composer had been Purcell, a nation that had been doing nothing very much, musically, but warbling in cathedrals for a couple of centuries, had somehow managed to produce a 20th-century composer of international stature, whose last name was that of the nation itself. We’d done it! Here was Benjamin Britain OM, ‘Baron Britain of Aldeburgh’, whose Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestrawas as close to state music as a piece not actually the national anthem could be, and which cleverly merged spiky modern fugue with a stately theme from Purcell himself. In the same way, his many songs and adapted folk songs sounded a bit old and a bit new, or a bit English and a bit Continental. Palatable modernity: a good postwar flag under which to assemble. No wonder the school system flew it so often, in those countless ‘musical appreciation’ classes.

Approved, canonical Britten was also present outside school – fittingly, in church. No contemporary composer of similar standing had written as much sacred music for choirs. At Durham, as a cathedral chorister, I sang his sparkling Te Deum and Jubilate, and the beautiful anthems Hymn to St Cecilia (classy words by Auden, usefully decent treble solo)​♪ listen and Hymn to St Peter (eerie plainsong effect, also with coveted treble solo opportunity).​♪ listen In the cathedral, thrillingly at night, that enormous building dark and mysterious beyond our spotlit oasis, we thrashed our way through an evening performance of Noye’s Fludde, aided by a few glamorously affectless university string players.

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