Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Britten Problem

Anniversaries, as we are too frequently given occasion to reflect, are curious creatures. More often than not, true opportunities are missed. For instance, the 2011 Liszt bicentenary offered, with a few exceptions, little more than a greater number of performances of the same relatively small number of pieces. Vast swathes of a fascinating if undoubtedly uneven œuvre went unexplored. This year we enjoy and/or suffer Wagner, Verdi, and Britten. At least in England; it is difficult to imagine that the Britten centenary is receiving quite the same or perhaps any level of overkill elsewhere.

And that, of course, is the problem: the ongoing parochialism of certain sections of English musical life – which, to be fair, Britten himself tried, at least in some ways, to combat. Yet the ridiculous insistence from ‘true believers’ that every Britten work is a masterpiece does nothing to help the cause of a decent yet wildly overrated composer. The Royal Opera’s Gloriana, in as estimable performance as it is likely to receive, showed beyond any doubt that Britten was very capable of writing distinctly uninspired music. As for its ghastly libretto...

Yet for some, Britten is treated as if he were the utmost in modernity.  Why? There is parochialism pure and simple: the UKIP tendency, people who write in to Proms controllers lamenting the lack of wall-to-wall Arnold Bax and so forth. (For the rest of us it has never occurred to value something because it was English, British, or whatever; if anything, we probably tend to be a little less indulgent upon our ‘own’.) But there is also another peculiarity of English musical life, namely the prevalence of choral establishments. The bizarrely skewed standpoint that results from the daily repertoire of most Anglican  foundations presents a world of early music worthy of the name: Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, perhaps even a little Palestrina and Monteverdi, though certainly not too much. However, as time goes on, choirmasters take a peculiar historical detour from which they never return, miring themselves and their charges in an otherwise unknown world of Victoriana and post-Victoriana, apparently quite ignorant of core repertoire that others would take for granted. The likes of Sir Hubert Parry – a favourite of the Prince of Wales – rise to quasi-Wagnerian heights, whilst the twentieth century consists not of Schoenberg and Stockhausen but the camp followers of Sir Charles Stanford.

No wonder, then, that Britten assumes a greater importance than he otherwise would: if a less consistent composer than Elgar, he remains, perhaps even in Gloriana, several cuts above most of the ‘English choral tradition’. In The Turn of the Screw, moreover, Britten shows himself by any reasonable standards a true musical master. There are even references and connections to some musical developments from ‘abroad’. The problem of ‘abroad’ was of course part of the composer’s tragedy too: who knows what so prodigiously talented a musician might have accomplished had he not been thwarted in his desire to study with Berg? Perhaps he might then, however, have put himself utterly beyond the pale for the English musical nationalists. It would have been all the better for him if he had.

In a sense, Britten may have been born too early – though Elgar had, admittedly, managed to deal with not dissimilar problems rather more successfully. The next generation, that of the Manchester School, found it far easier to consider itself one of composers rather than ‘English composers’. There may be certain ‘English’ qualities and interests, but no one would overemphasise their importance, and they would doubtless go unnoticed by the devotees of Sir Edward Bairstow. (Don’t ask!) Needless to say, the music of Birtwistle, Goehr, and Davies is eclipsed by the likes of John Rutter’s pop-like chirpiness or, still worse, the soft-centred clusters of fellow Anglophone, Eric Whitacre; or rather, it does, to the bemusement of the rest of us, in a strange, almost hermetically-sealed world for which Britten remains an example of music as ‘modern’ as would be seemly. Rescue him from the clammy clutches of his devotees, and we might yet have the opportunity of a truer re-assessment.