Monday, April 29, 2013

Along Suffolk Lanes

[Benjamin Britten] adored the company of boys. As John Bridcut revealed in his groundbreaking “Britten’s Children” in 2006, the composer had intense crushes on a string of 13-year-olds, during which the recipients were invited to Aldeburgh and treated like Greek gods. The pattern was always the same. Britten would dazzle each with his charisma, write letters couched in what now seems like creepy, infatuated language, ply them with treats, swim and play tennis with them, whizz them along Suffolk lanes in his sports car, hug them—and sometimes (as with the screen actor David Hemmings, who as a boy had been the original Miles in “The Turn of the Screw”) share a bed.

There is, one should say, no evidence that he went farther. “Am I a lecher just because I enjoy the company of children?” he once spat at the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who had quipped that Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde”, with its big children’s chorus, was “Ben’s paradise”.

But then, soon after they reached puberty, the boys were inevitably discarded in favour of next year’s model, often with peremptory callousness (Britten had a notoriously fickle attitude to people who were no longer useful).

Richard Morrison, writing in The Times on 19 January 2013


We did not have the stomachs to sit through two recent presentations of Britten operas in the Twin Cities.

The weekend before last, University Of Minnesota Opera Theatre presented four performances of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I dislike the work intensely—the music is weak-as-water—and it would have been a chore for us to endure one of the performances. In any event, the University Of Minnesota has a dismayingly mediocre Music Department—not the case half a century ago—and has not been able to attract a satisfactory level of faculty talent or student talent for twenty or thirty years.

The weekend just ended featured two performances of Britten’s “Paul Bunyan” by VocalEssence, a local organization that—in its former incarnation, Plymouth Music Series—made a famous recording of “Paul Bunyan” more than twenty years ago. Opportunities to hear “Paul Bunyan” are exceedingly rare, but we did not avail ourselves of the chance.

I more or less share the thoughts of Igor Stravinsky, Herbert Von Karajan and Pierre Boulez when it comes to the music of Britten: the music is so second-rate, why does anyone bother?


  1. Amen to that!

    Britten is often coupled in my mind to Gian Carlo Menotti because I can find interesting things in both composers' instrumental writing, whereas sitting through any opera by either composer, for me, is no less welcome than enduring a root canal.

    Interestingly, Aaron Copland, another composer to be found on Boulez's list of "dismissibles," modeled his "The Tender Land" after Britten's operas. Not surprisingly, Copland's only opera suffers the same weaknesses that plague Britten's work in the same form: Copland's voal music - even in the "big numbers" - is prosaic, through and through (to be polite).

    Ironically, I think some of Coplands' very best orchestral writing can be heard in "The Tender Land"; this is the ONLY reason I listen to this score.

  2. That's "Copland," not "Coplands." (I am not familiar with Copland's "voal" music.)

  3. Have you read Virgil Thomson’s essay on “Peter Grimes”, written when the opera was brand-new? It is the most penetrating examination of a Britten opera I have ever read—and the musical weaknesses Thomson identifies may be found in the Britten operas that were to follow.

    1. I haven't read Thomson's review of "Peter Grimes," but I AM familiar with the critic's reaction to "Paul Bunyan," as recorded by the Herald Tribune newspaper: Thomson called the music "undistinguished," if I recall.

      I confess that the first time I heard the "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes," I rather liked them. That said, however, none of Britten's orchestral music, including the opera interludes, has survived its "want-list shelf-life."

  4. Much of Britten’s orchestral music is entirely pleasant, but incredibly thin. For instance, the Violin Concerto and Diversions For Piano (Left Hand) And Orchestra, both typical, are works with a high finish and provide pleasant listening, but they are not moving or thought-provoking or deep—they are forgettable.

    Britten tried Berg-like techniques in the early Sinfonietta—a fascinating work—but he quickly abandoned them. I have always found it interesting that the Sinfonietta came before the Simple Symphony: the Sinfonietta is amazing; the Simple Symphony is the work of a talented hack.

    I think the Sinfonia da Requiem is the one orchestral work from Britten’s work list I whole-heartedly admire. Its themes are undistinguished, but it is well put-together and it has genuine emotional and dramatic qualities.