Caring for our environment: before Greta Thunberg and Al Gore there was Benjamin Britten
Friday, April 26, 2019
Before Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, there was Benjamin Britten and his Aldeburgh Festival. Most of us now understand how our very survival depends on that of nature, however in the early 1950s, the world was still in awe of mankind’s power to tame nature.
But not Benjamin Britten. In 1952, he included three films by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at his Aldeburgh Festival. Britten was not only an innovative composer, but he was highly creative in the way he thought about his environment. Nature was not separate from his music; it was deeply etched in it. Yehudi Menuhin even once said: 'If wind and water could write music, it would sound like Ben’s.'
When Britten received the Aspen Award in 1964, he said that all his music came from Aldeburgh and its river, reeds and birdsong. Apart from Peter Grimes, I believe that is most true of his folksong arrangements. They were a tribute to the natural environment that bathed his childhood and formed him as a musician, humanist and pacifist. They remind us that we are part of something bigger and more beautiful than we can see, and that each of us has a responsibility to cultivate a physical and spiritual connection with the Earth, and leave it more beautiful that we found it.
In homage to Britten’s innovation and to his commitment to his community, I invited a small yet brilliant group of artists to collaborate with me on an album entitled 'The Wild Song'. The album we created together alternates between Britten’s folksong arrangements (performed by myself and Anna Tilbrook), electronic interludes by the Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna, and poetry by WB Yeats recited by Simon Russell Beale. I chose Yeats’s poetry, and those poems in particular, because his language resonates so naturally with the lyrics in the songs. Each of the poems by Yeats is paired with one of Britten’s folksong arrangements with a similar theme.
When the final edit of Britten’s songs and Yeats’s poetry was complete, I came across an article in The New York Times written by James Rebanks, a shepherd and Oxford University graduate who lives and works in the England's Lake District. Fascinated by his article, I read his New York Times best-selling book The Shepherd’s Life and sent him a handwritten letter, asking if we could meet. For me, James lives and breathes the ideals of 'The Wild Song'. When we met, I told him I wanted to share his book with Mychael Danna. Mychael’s electronic interludes for The Wild Song were inspired by a passage in James’ book.
All of the ‘harmonies’ one hears in Mychael’s interludes on the album are quotes from Britten’s piano accompaniment which have been stretched, slowed down, and/or looped. Mychael’s compositions are therefore an ‘arrangement’ or gloss on the suite of folksongs. Some quote the piece before, some ‘continue’ the piece before, some quote the following piece, and some are just nature scenes.
We recorded 'The Wild Song' at the Britten Studio in Snape Maltings, and all of the photography and videography for the album was done on-site, to capture the essence of the landscape Britten held so dear.
Although 'environmentalists', per se, did not exist in Britten’s day, Britten actively defended the preservation of his natural surroundings in Suffolk. His legacy leaves an important message for us today – that we indeed are a part of nature, and it is not separate from us.
'The Wild Song' is everywhere when we listen: in the sound of the wind, the waves, our hearts. It is within us and around us. Both silent and deafening, it is the space before the breath, the rhythm of Nature. It is who we are.
The Wild Song will be released on Amazon and iTunes on May 10.
For more information about the album, please visit www.thewildsong.com