90th anniversary interviews: Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten talks to Alan Blyth (Gramophone, June 1970)Benjamin Britten talks to Alan Blyth (Gramophone, June 1970)

This month sees the issue of several records of Britten's music from Decca including one in the 'World of...' series. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the night that transformed the face of British opera – the premiere of Peter Grimes on June 7, 1945, at Sadler's Wells Theatre. Britten himself had not thought about the anniversary until I mentioned it to him when we met at Aldeburgh last month, but he recalled the occasion vividly, both its dark and bright side. 'It never occurred to me that the opera would work. My only other operatic experience until then had been in America with Paul Bunyan. This had proved disastrous – the wrong piece in the wrong place – and so I had no confidence about Grimes. Besides, at that time such an off-beat story was hardly thought right for an opera. This, and the quarrels going on in the company, were not very good auguries. At the dress rehearsal I thought the whole thing would be a disaster. But, of course, once the tension of the first night was over and people flocked to hear the opera, it was very exciting. 

'Looking back, I think it broke the ice for British opera. At that time there was hardly a chance of an English work being done; now, it's marvellous how many composers there are writing operas in this country – and getting them performed. It is accepted almost as a matter of course.' 

The quarrels and jealousies arising out of the Grimes production convinced Britten that he should form his own company and the English Opera Group was the outcome. 'We have come through many vicissitudes, mostly financial. For years, the company was run on a pittance and we planned ventures that really looked foolhardy on paper. Happily, over the past eight or nine years, we have been luckier. The association with Covent Garden has worked very well. We're given lots of facilities while keeping our independence. And greater financial stability has allowed us to build up a wonderful company. Singers like Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Robert Tear and John Shirley-Quirk have gained their first operatic experience with us and even today, when the demand on their services is ever increasing, they always find the time to come back and work with us.' 

I asked what he felt was the future of opera. 'I think there will always be what's called grand opera as long as people can afford it and many composers, such as Richard Rodney Bennett and Henze, have written marvellously for a large stage. At present, I don't feel I have anything to contribute to it – though I may change my mind. I'm more attracted by smaller and more versatile forms. In that connection, I was encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of the Church operas on our recent Australian tour. A comparatively inexperienced audience accepted the strangeness (for them) of the form, and very few were waiting, as it were, for the curtain to go up; so it confirmed my opinion that these pieces really work as a medium. Now I want to translate the form to Snape and write a work appropriate to the stage there – possibly an adapatation of a Greek drama.' 

More immediately he is composing his first opera expressly designed for television, Owen Wingrave, to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on a Henry James short story. 'The medium presents one with a whole new set of problems. You have to persuade viewers to take the occasion seriously. On the other hand, you can't really calculate for those who are bored, arrive late, or are interrupted by the telephone. You can't keep repeating the plot, like a cricket score or something. Then there's the whole problem of making singers seem credible on television. So, with Wingrave, we are really working hard on the acting side. 

'I had been thinking for some time of this story about a scion of a military family who does not want to carry on the tradition and I felt that it would be suitable for TV because it's a very intimate, reasonable story. At first, I thought I would write it in a very conversational, Pelléas-like way but then I felt I must give the singers something really to sing. The story has been expanded to allow for a very full discussion of both sides of the argument. Owen is rather a wild, ecstatic young man. His military tutor is another interesting character, a man of personal warmth and intelligence who eventually sees the courage in Owen's stance. This part will be taken by John Shirley-Quirk, and I've written it with him in mind. The same is true of Owen's girlfriend Kate, in whom the struggle is really centred, and Janet Baker, whose brilliance and intelligence have inevitably moulded the part. I always think of the voice, personality, appearance, nature of the singer when I'm writing a part.' 

In fact, it seems that Britten's greatest stimulus today comes from writing for specific artists. 'You could say people are my note rows' is how he put it to me, and it partly explains why he is not interested in writing for machines as is the case with many younger composers today. 'I'm more interested in people than in techniques. In any case, I'm not a mechanically-minded person and I'm sure I'd break the machines! No, I don't like electronic music. I had a lot to do with it when I was young and in the musique concrète days. I find the frequent soft attack distasteful. 

'My real worry about some of today's young is their denial of the past. Whether we like it or not, we are all children of our fathers and I'm not going to dislike Mozart or Schubert or Bach for anyone. I think there's also a danger that too much atttention will be paid to the piffle that some people talk about the future of music. We mustn't confuse a small section or clique with the main musical public who are quite out of sympathy with some of the assaults on their ears.' 

Nor does he find himself much in sympathy with the Second Viennese School, with the exception of Berg. 'I find Webern  like a Mondrian painting – very fresh and cleansing but the baby seems to have gone out with the bath water. I must emphasise that these are my personal views and I don't believe, as so many people do today, in being dogmatic. The same applies to my opinion of Brahms. When we were in Adelaide recently, I was asked to say a few words on what I thought about Brahms. I suppose I know his work as well as anyone living and until I was about 16 or 17 he was one of my major passions. Then I suddenly found that his music didn't contain what I needed at that moment. I love the early works still – the D minor Concerto and the Piano Quintet, for instance. He saw that these didn't quite work but in striving for formal perfection, I feel that he somehow lost something and that something is what I miss in his later music. After saying this, I had a heartbroken letter from a student who had been very upset by what I said. I wrote back at length pointing out that this was my own reaction, and that I don't particularly like tomatoes and mushrooms but that didn't mean they were wicked or anything.' 

In his famous Aspen Award lecture in 1964, Britten commented that the 'loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music' so I was eager to know if he had modified his strongly expressed opinions against the gramophone. 'I think I may have slightly overstated the case. A record is wonderful to have as long as we realise it is a substitute, not the real thing. We must always be aware that pieces are written, for particular circumstances and we must be careful of criticising them if they don't stand up in very different circumstances. People sometimes complain that Wagner operas are too long, that they get stiff and sore about 10.30 because they have rushed in to hear one of his works straight from work and are not properly prepared for listening to his music. The audience, as much as the artists, must be prepared for a performance. Let me give a personal instance. At the first performance of Curlew River, there was a terrific storm, a generator was struck and the audience was left for nearly an hour in the dark before the opera began. I thought this would be disastrous: in fact, it allowed people time to meditate and get into the right frame of mind. I'm sure this contributed to the work's impact that evening. 

'On the other hand, second-hand experiences are part of our time. Records, like reproductions of paintings, serve an essential purpose of education – but as the colours may be wrong in the copy of a painting so a record can give the wrong impression of a piece of music. As long as we keep that in mind, we are free to enjoy them. 

'Of course, they have another purpose in preserving a style of performance. I've been listening recently to Mengelberg's interpretation of the Matthew Passion and Percy Grainger playing Chopin. From these I have learnt a lot. I would not necessarily want to perform the music in this way but we must not despise an older manner simply because it's not our own.' 

He and Decca have a number of projects in mind, some of them more definite than others. 'We shall be recording The Rape of Lucretia in the summer and, I believe, the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. Then I hope we shall be 'doing some Mozart piano concertos with Clifford Curzon and the John Passion with the Wandsworth School Choir. And we are also considering The Dream of Gerontius. I'm a bit doubtful about this as I've never conducted the work before, but I'm very fond of it and Peter would very much like to record it.' 

I wondered about Gloriana and Mozart operas. 'Yes, of course I would like to record Gloriana and Idomeneo and The Magic Flute. But operas are a tremendous undertaking in energy and time. It must be fitted in with the running of the festival and the learning of difficult new works like Shostakovich's 14th Symphony. Then I must find the time to write my own music. As well as Owen Wingrave, I'm working on a big symphonic work about the sea for the BBC and I very much want to write another quartet. Everything has to take its place in the queue.' 

His most recent completed work is a longish song cycle Who are these children?, which still awaits its first performance, its Edinburgh premiere having been postponed because of Peter Pears's illness. It is a setting of poems by William Soutar, a little-known Scottish poet whose work Britten has just re-discovered. I asked him how he went about choosing his texts. 'I think they're chosen by instinct more than anything else. I read a very great deal of poetry and, as I read, something often attracts my attention as being suitable for setting. I have often been criticised adversely for setting great poetry and somehow spoiling it. But I think poetry can be enhanced by music and, in any case, the poem is still there to be read by itself if someone doesn't like my music. I was accused of "spoiling" the Keats sonnet in the Serenade – as if I'd deliberately torn up the only copy of the poem! As if I had mutilated a great painting. I don't mind cutting if the musical requirements call for it. I took about 15 lines out of the final poem I used for the War Requiem, simply because it was too long for my purposes. I think you can do this always provided the verse still makes sense.' 

The day before meeting Britten I had seen and heard the television presentation of the English Opera Group's Idomeneo, and I was interested to know what particular technique lay behind this and Britten's other superb Mozart interpretations. 'I always go through all the parts and mark bowing and dynamics as I do with any work I'm going to conduct. This is essential as rehearsal time is always too short; besides, it provides a basis for discussion with the players. As far as Mozart in particular is concerned, I suppose my approach derives essentially from my tremendous sympathy with and passion for his music. Everything, if that's not a mixed metaphor, is full of throbbing blood. In Idomeneo, and all his mature operas, there's nothing that is merely illustrative; everything derives from situation and character. Then, there's that essential in all music, the phrasing. But I think, most important of all is a passionate involvement and a realisation, with Idomeneo, of how a man of 25 could understand so marvellously the father-son relationship or how he could have created a character so close to Euripides as Electra.' 

And perhaps one might add the unique ability of a creator himself re-creating the work of a fellow-composer. 

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