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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 16 July 16, 1968

Records — The power of dreams


The power of dreams

I wish that contemporary English music on record was abundantly and freely available. But all we have are the odds and sods, and the "serious" young ones turning to film music, leaving only Benjamin Britten, as long as he's alive to conduct on record all the music he has written.

Michael Tippett is so sadly neglected on record, and comparisons with Britten are certainly unthinkable. To do justice to Sir Michael's music, we would hope that especially his opera The Midsummer Marriage (1955), after the resounding return it had in London recently, would warrant a recording. It is one of the many neglected masterpieces this fine boyish 63 year-old composer has written. And who's heard of Havergal Brian's output?

Britten is younger than Michael Tippett, and still his output is extraordinary. One shouldn't say that Britten's music gets any better as he gets older. That is, he is writing more "profound and profounder" music. Not at all. I can almost see him returning to the earlier works, working more closely to a unified pattern, on a smaller scale, and achieving the rare sublimity of his unique style.

It causes the uninitiated to be remarkably impressed on hearing a new Britten work for the first time. I even heard someone say, "who said Britten can't modulate?" (sic). The uninitiateds fit in remarkably well with people like Britten and, Particularly these days. Mahler

John Culshaw and Benjamin Britten during a recording session of "Billy Budd".

John Culshaw and Benjamin Britten during a recording session of "Billy Budd".

Ronald Stevenson in an article in the BBC Listener in which he called the War Requiem a failure wrote: "For year's Britten has been the recipient, or victim, of a stream of adulatory, and sometimes, sycophantic journalism. He must be sick of it."

I can't see why. Stevenson writes obscurely (evens nastily) about the failure of a masterpiece, and certainly would not live-up to his words, by letting Britten read it!

I remember when the first of the church parable opera trilogy Curlew River was released here and the concern and delight expressed by listeners. I even saw some moved to tears over the Madwoman's grief for her lost son, when his spirit appears above her singing "go in peace mother, the dead shall rise again "

The idea of an unconducted church-opera with all male voices and based on a Japanese Noh play, set a style in opera presentation unique since its instigation in early Kalian opera of the 16th century.

Britten followed this a year later with The Burning Fiery Furnace (SET 356) (copies of this are still available in town, but you'll nave to hurry—it won't be reused locally), which was recorded late last year.

The style was similar, but in the chamber ensemble, instead of the french horn, Britten uses a trombone, giving a stronger more starkly pagan effect, plus a barrage of the most interesting percussion instruments since those dreadful Miklos Rozsa's film scores for biblical epics

Furnace is concerned with faith in adversity and racial tolerance. The story of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon and the Israelites, and of the "unfaithfulness" of Shadrach, Mesaeh and Abednego. There is a miracle feeling again surrounding the work. Obscene hymns to the false god Merodak; parallels to capitalism etc, can be Interpreted if you want to!

Again we have Britten's master soloists, Peter Pears without whom Benjamin Britten would be impossible and John Shirley-Quirk, one of the finest young baritones any where.

Both operas are contained on two sides each and both produced by that masterly innocent provocateur of stereo discs, John Culshaw, who said that continuity would have been lost if they were recorded on three sides

It was marvellous to read recently about the premiere of the final of the trilogy, The Prodigal Son, at Aldeburgh page 9on June 11. Included this time in the chamber ensemble is an alto flute (it's used superbly in the more "serious" interludes in Albert Herring), and critic William Mann of The Times was so moved (now conditioned to the territory of Britten's world) that he wrote:

"I am sure that it is sufficiently distinctive to complete the trilogy in worth-while fashion; it may be the most brilliant and touching of them, though for me the predicament of the madwoman in Curlew River is unsurpassable and her music outstrips anything in the other two operas. But the big ensembles in Prodigal Son and the magnificently terrifying part of the Tempter (Peter Pears) suggest that for many spectators this maybe the finest of the three."

Verbal warhorse of the 60's, Anthony Burgess, expostulates on Britten: "That man has, when you come to think of it, done wonders with an arpeggio of a secondary 13th. But his operas are better than Gounod's; he is literate and has attracted the literate. Give him a good tune . . . and he is superb. Let us praise while we can the vertical man."

It is interesting to note in passing, Britten's operas which he attempted (and sort of completed) around the 40's. Operas based on The Canterbury Tales, (Heloise and Abelard), and Mansfield Park, (Letters to William); a requiem for Hiroshima. These are recounted with nostalgic charm by his early friend and librettist Ronald Duncan (including Britten's first meeting with Kathleen Ferrier, "perfect in an ugly hat!"), in his forthcoming book, How to Make Enemies (Rupert Hart-Davies.)

A Midsummer Nights Dream (SET 338-40) has finally arrived in the country through Her Majesty's Postal Service, one year after its pressing, and limited copies should still be available on inquiry. This is the most marvellous work I have heard in years, and justifies the unprecedented raves it received in England and America. A romantic, inspired love pageant by a 20th century composer; the finest Shakespeare in song since Verdi's Falstaff (I seconded that!) It is the enchanting world of fairies, queens, rustics and lovers, and Britten's fertile imagination runs a turbulent riot of unbelievable beauty and majesty.

Hugh Wood says: "That Britten can write full-blooded love-music should, at any rate, no longer be in doubt after a hearing of the Dream." I first heard it in a radio broadcast from the premier performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1960, and remembered laughing out-loud at the Pyramus and Thisby entertainment. Rossini babble, Verdi soarings, tinctures of badly over-written recitatives, mad and senseless obbligato's (Bellini, Donizetti, who else?). Satire so whimsical and controlled, I lost all bearing.

Now on record 8 years later, I feel a slight embarrassment remembering only that small section, for the main part of the opera is naturally of greater importance and so intensely different. Britten collaborated with Pears on the exquisite libretto, and uses a cast of superb singers, the finest in Britain today. Alfred Deller (counter-tenor) is Oberon, king of the fairies, a part of unique resourcefulness in that it recalls the work of Dowland, and especially Purcell.

Because of the enormity of characterizations and of the pleasure gotten from this magical opera, I am sorry I cannot go into detail. It is a world so different from anything else in existence, a world of the power of dreams, for Britten has written much about dreams, and it is an important ingredient in the opera.

The On This Island cycle, the 1958 Nocturne (Dream is very similar in sections to this), the short piano work Night-piece, and the lovely Nocturnal for solo guitar.

John Culshaw has obviously gained so much, and loved his years working with Britten on his own music, and I quote his "farewell" article in the Gramophone. He is writing about the new Billy Budd.

"I can't think of any work with which I would have preferred to end my years with Decca. If you love music, the rewards of working in music come from the music itself, and the conditions under which it is made. As you grow older, you tend to become increasingly impatient with the jungle of professional music-making and especially with the shattering small-mindedness of so many singers, whose concern with music making seems to vary inversely with their approach to the summit of fame. None of this applies, or has ever applied, to any sessions with Benjamin Britten. He seems to inspire everyone around him with a different sort of single mindedness, which is simply that of doing justice, in the time available and according to one's abilities and limitations to the music at hand. And it applies just as firmly to anyone else's music as to his own. I do not know whether Decca will have a success with Billy Budd; but I am sure that if records still exist a hundred years from now, it will be one of the survivors."