BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem / Gloriana Suite / Sea Interludes (Alexander Taylor/ Keiron Moore/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Osian Ellis/ Steuart Bedford) (Naxos: 8.557196)
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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Benjamin Britten occupies an unrivalled position inEnglish music of the twentieth century and a place of thegreatest importance in the wider musical world. WhileElgar was in some ways part of late nineteenth-centuryGerman romantic tradition, Britten avoided the trapoffered by musical nationalism and the insular debt tofolk-music of his older compatriots, while profiting fromthat tradition in a much wider European context. He maybe seen as following in part a path mapped out byMahler. He possessed a special gift for word-setting andvocal writing, a facility that Purcell had shown and thatwas the foundation of a remarkable series of operas thatbrought English opera for the first time into internationalrepertoire. Tonal in his musical language, he knew wellhow to use inventively, imaginatively, and, above all,musically, techniques that in other hands often seemedarid. His work owed much to the friendship and constantcompanionship of the singer Peter Pears, for whomBritten wrote many of his principal operatic r??les andwhose qualities of voice and intelligence clearly had amarked effect on his vocal writing.
Born in the East Anglian seaside town of Lowestoftin 1913, Britten showed early gifts as a composer,studying with Frank Bridge before a less fruitful time atthe Royal College of Music in London. His associationwith the poet W.H.Auden, with whom he undertookvarious collaborations, was in part behind his departurewith Pears in 1939 for the United States, whereopportunities seemed plentiful, away from the pettyjealousies and inhibitions of his own country, wheremusical facility and genius often seemed the objects ofsuspicion. The outbreak of war brought its owndifficulties. Britten and Pears were firmly pacifist intheir views, but were equally horrified at the excesses ofNational Socialism and sufferings that the war brought.
Britten's nostalgia for his native country and region ledto their return to England in 1942, when they rejectedthe easy option of nominal military service as musiciansin uniform in favour of overt pacifism, but were able togive concerts and recitals, often in difficultcircumstances, offering encouragement to those whoheard them. The re-opening of Sadler's Wells and thestaging of Britten's opera Peter Grimes started a new erain English opera. The English Opera Group was foundedand a series of chamber operas followed, with largerscale works that established Britten as a composer of thehighest stature, a position recognised shortly before hisearly death by his elevation to the peerage, the firstEnglish composer ever to be so honoured.
The earliest of the works here included is theSinfonia da Requiem, written in response to acommission in the autumn of 1939 from the Japanesegovernment for a work to mark the 2,600th anniversaryof the founding of the imperial dynasty. The occasionwas to include new compositions by Richard Strauss,Jacques Ibert and Sandor Veress, but Britten'ssymphony was rejected by the commissioningcommittee, who took exception to the nature of the workand its apparent Christian content, although it hadinitially received approval. Britten had, in any case,resolved to write a composition imbued with as much ofthe spirit of pacifism as was possible. The officialconcert duly took place in Tokyo, with Britainunrepresented, and Strauss at his most bombastic. In theevent the Sinfonia da Requiem, dedicated to the memoryof Britten's parents, had its first performance in March1941 at Carnegie Hall in New York, with thePhilharmonic Symphony Orchestra conducted by JohnBarbirolli.
Britten, in his programme notes for the firstperformance, described the opening movement,Lacrymosa, as a slow marching lament with threeprincipal motifs, the first heard from the cellos answeredby a solo bassoon, the second based on the interval of amajor seventh and the third alternating chords on fluteand trombones. The first section leads to an extendedcrescendo and a climax based on the first motif. Thesecond movement, Dies Irae, which follows without abreak, he describes as a Dance of Death. It leads directlyto the final Requiem Aeternam, with its principal melodyannounced by the flutes, finally returning before thesustained clarinet note with which the work ends.
Peter Grimes had its first performance at the reopenedSadler's Wells Theatre in London in June 1945.
In California in 1941 Britten had come across an articleby E.M.Forster on the poet George Crabbe, adding to hisown feelings of nostalgia for his own part of England.
Crabbe's poem The Borough, set in Suffolk, provided asource for the opera. The fisherman Peter Grimes, anoutsider, suspected by his fellow-townspeople of crueltyto his apprentices, is hounded to his death. The drama,and the death of Grimes's last apprentice, the result ofthe actions of the people of the borough, is set againstthe sea in its varying moods, elements familiar to Brittenfrom his childhood by the sea in Lowestoft. The FourSea Interludes divide the scenes of the opera. The firstof these, Dawn, with its sea-gull cries above the waves,introduces the first act, as fisherfolk mend their nets andprepare their sails for the day to come. The second of thefour, Sunday Morning, introduces Act II, with its churchbells and bright sunshine, as townspeople gather beforechurch, their self-righteous hypocrisy in contrast to thegenuine emotions that will be played out betweenGrimes and the schoolmistress Ellen Orford, who tries toprotect him. Moonlight begins the third act, the shoreand village street lit by the moon, as a dance takes placein the Moot Hall, a scene in which the hypocriticalcharacter of those who condemn Grimes becomes evermore apparent. Storm is taken from earlier in the opera,between the first and second scenes. Balstrode, afisherman, gives Grimes friendly advice, urging him tomarry Ellen, this against the sounds of a rising storm. Inwhat follows people gather in The Boar Inn, whereGrimes's arrival, either mad or drunk the people say, isunwelcome. The Passacaglia comes at a moment ofdramatic climax, between the first and second scenes ofAct II. In the first scene the people, incited to revenge onGrimes for his maltreatment of his new apprentice, setout towards his hut; in the second Grimes, ambitious tomake money, the only thing others respect, urges hisapprentice down the cliff to set out fishing, as the peopleof the borough make their threatening approach. ThePassacaglia theme itself echoes Grimes's own words,after his quarrel with Ellen, 'God have mercy upon me',while the solo viola of the first variation speaks for themute apprentice.
Gloriana was written, as the result of conversationsbetween Britten, Peter Pears and his friends Lord andLady Harewood, for the coronation of 1953, with alibretto by William Plomer, and a plot taken largelyfrom Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex. Like BillyBudd, which had been staged at Covent Garden inconnection with the 1951 Festival of Britain, it dealswith conflict between personal feelings and duty, asQueen Elizabeth has no choice but to condemn herimpetuous young favourite, the Earl of Essex, to death.
It is hardly necessary to repeat stories about the firstnight, a royal gala performance before anuncomprehending audience, described by a leadingmember of the cast as 'cold fish'. Possibly the jingoismthat Britten had openly avoided in the Sinfonia daRequiem would have better suited the occasion. Here,however, was a serious opera, that, nevertheless, had itselements of royal courtly pageantry.
Britten arranged the Symphonic Suite from the operain the later months of 1954, with the help of ImogenHolst. It opens with The Tournament of Act I, whereEssex, jealous of the success of Mountjoy in combat,fights with him. The Lute