Year in, year out, the operas of Benjamin Britten get some 200 performances a year in 30 different cities around the world. It is one measure of the international appeal of a deeply British composer. To celebrate that appeal, and encourage greater acceptance in areas where his music is not so well known, the year leading up to the composer’s 100th anniversary in November 2013 is going to be one big party. Clare Stevens opens the invitation
Concert and opera performances as far afield as Brazil, Chile, Israel, Beijing, South Africa, Nigeria, Russia and New Zealand; a vast new website with text available in seven languages; films, dance, recordings, books, exhibitions, conferences, countless outreach projects and a year-long celebration on BBC TV and Radio 3; a major building project at his former home ‒ with just over a year still to go before the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the celebratory events have already started happening and the enormous list of planned tributes is growing by the hour, judging by the Twitter feed on the Britten100 hashtag.
A production of Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh looks set to be the hottest ticket, encapsulating the dominant influence in the composer’s music of the seascapes of his East Anglian homeland. By contrast, a nationwide singing project running from 22 November this year  through to the actual centenary on 22 November 2013 has the potential to have the widest reach. Dreamt up by Aldeburgh Music to highlight Britten’s extraordinary legacy of work for young people and to encourage more singing in schools, it aims to get at least 75,000 children in the UK to join in singing Friday Afternoons, the cycle of 12 songs composed by Britten for the school in Prestatyn, north Wales, where his brother was headmaster.
The organisers of the festivities have also managed to persuade the Royal Mint to issue a commemorative 50p coin which will go into UK circulation at the end of this year and, as they put it, will ‘literally place Britten in the hands of everyone in the nation’. They are determined to ensure that the centenary celebrations reach beyond the cognoscenti to make the widest possible public aware of Britten’s importance as a leading figure in British cultural history.
Britten 100 spans the two concert seasons on either side of the actual centenary on 22 November 2013 – September 2012 to August 2014. It is curated by the Aldeburgh-based Britten-Pears Foundation (BPF), a charity funded by royalty income from performances of Britten’s works, which grew out of the Library Trust set up in 1973 by the composer and his partner Peter Pears. BPF runs a major grant-giving programme supporting its sister organisation Aldeburgh Music, which in turn runs the Aldeburgh Festival and the programme of educational events and performances at nearby Snape Maltings where Britten built his dream concert hall. BPF acts as a centre for research based on the Britten archive held at his former home, the Red House. It also supports and helps to promote the composition of new music, world-wide performances of Britten’s work, and community projects in and around Aldeburgh.
Expansion of BPF’s activities will be made possible by the £4.7m development project at the Red House which is a significant strand in the celebrations. A new building in the grounds will free up existing storage space for public access including Red Cottage, the studio where Britten wrote his War Requiem and other works. There will also be space for a larger exhibition gallery, with the highlights of BPF’s collections used to create an introduction to the man and his music.
Anyone who has visited the Red House to work or on one of its occasional open days may be concerned that opening Britten’s former home up to more people will threaten its very special atmosphere. Not so, insists BPF director Richard Jarman. ‘One of the special attractions of the Red House is its sense of peace, and it is very important that this be maintained. The new building is a private archive for study and research, not a visitor centre. Although the newly restored composing studio and the expanded exhibition space will be reasons to visit the site, we are confident that the numbers involved will not fundamentally change the nature of the place.’
Asked how he went about curating such an enormous artistic programme as Britten 100, Jarman explains that the BPF signalled the centenary several years ago, so that organisations would have a chance to think about their contributions: ‘Some did things spontaneously, some approached us for advice about repertoire, etc, and some were our initiatives, such as working with the British Council on Britten in Moscow Festival and with the BFO on a season of films.
‘There are no specific criteria for inclusion in the programme; events just need to be Britten-related or include a Britten work and to be taking place within the specified period. The list published so far is by no means finite – most organisations have not yet announced their plans for the 2013/14 season so there will be plenty more events to be included, notably in the USA and Germany. Anyone planning an event can go to the centenary website to submit details to our database and download the official logo.’
Why does Jarman believe Britten is such a pre-eminent figure in the music of the past century, and how does he think his music will survive this long scrutiny?
‘He is pre-eminent mostly because he wrote such a huge range of great music that has a universal appeal. Although his music is recognisably English, he was greatly influenced by many composers when he was young and his voice is definitely international. Like Richard Strauss, he wrote some wonderful scores for the concert hall and recital room, but his international reputation is really based on his series of great operas, which are performed all over the world, It is remarkable that year in, year out they get some 200 performances a year in 30 different cities and in the past five seasons they have been programmed in no fewer than 359 different series of performances.’
As a result, Jarman adds, Britten’s music is familiar to musicians all over the world and conductors are keen to perform his works. ‘But in some countries work still has to be done in familiarising audiences so we have invested quite a lot of money for the centenary in making things happen in new parts of the world.’
Of course not everyone admires Britten’s music, while others find aspects of his personality so distasteful that they will deplore this celebration. How does Jarman answer such critics? ‘We are celebrating Britten as a great composer, not proposing him for sainthood!’ he says. ‘He had his faults, as did Elgar, Wagner, Beethoven and Mozart, but these do not stop them being considered among the very great composers. I think that much of the negative aspects of Britten’s life and personality have been well discussed in the last 20 years and are now largely discounted. People recognise that Britten lived in a different kind of society from today’s, and a much less tolerant one, especially to such things as pacifism and homosexuality. They recognise that he needed to have a certain ruthlessness to concentrate on his creative output and to enable him to live up to his own very high standards.
‘Britten’s record stands on his huge corpus of works of genius and the fact that he changed the face of British music almost overnight with the phenomenal international success of such pieces as the War Requiem and Peter Grimes; and his perception that music should be seen as a vital part of community life was way ahead of its times. Many of today’s approaches to music education were made possible through works such as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Let’s Make an Opera and Noye’s Fludde.’
Britten in the spotlight
CM asked some of the contributors to Britten 100 for their views on Britten’s music and how it will stand up to this year-long scrutiny
Timothy Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which will be featuring Britten in three major concerts in his centenary year
‘As Alex Ross points out in The Rest is Noise, Britten is perhaps the most international of British composers, in that he was much more influenced by what was happening outside the UK than his predecessors had been, and this has helped to guarantee him a worldwide audience. In his operas he grapples with major themes and they feature tortured souls whose lives inspired him to such inventive writing – they are truly gripping works that are beyond parallel, really.
‘Britten produced a substantial body of work across all genres and it was written with such knowledge of music behind it. It was immediately successful, but it has also stood the test of time and we certainly have no difficulty in selling it to our audiences. The War Requiem is extraordinarily powerful but smaller-scale pieces such as the violin concerto, piano concerto and concerto for violin and viola are also terrific works – in putting together our Britten concerts it was very difficult to decide what to leave out.’
Judith Bingham, composer, who will be involved in workshops on setting words as part of next year’s Britten in Oxford Festival
‘For me, Britten is one of those composers who make you avoid setting the same texts: sometimes his settings seem almost miraculously definitive. When I first heard his setting of “Sound the flute” in the Spring Symphony I knew that I would never try and set those words, the music so ideally captures the Blake. Britten successfully sets words that seem pretty impossible to do – The Oxen by Hardy comes to mind, with its elongated sentences. When I recently set the Corpus Christi carol I deliberately had to ban the Britten from my brain! He epitomises the “less is more” school of writing, perhaps maybe to a fault. It is intimate music, slowly unfolding its depths after many hearings. If there is one aspect of his writing that I don’t like it is a middle-class tweeness that occasionally creeps in – sometimes things are too comfortable – Rejoice in the Lamb, for example, always strikes me as too bland for the time when it was written; I find it almost callous. But he is without doubt a composer of enduring value and greatness – brave, subtle, and technically immaculate.’
Cathy Graham, music director of the British Council which is joining the BPF to bring a major series of Britten 100 events to audiences around the world
‘Benjamin Britten is very well known in Europe, the US and Japan, but the British Council has been working very closely with the BPF to raise his profile in areas of the world where his music is less familiar. There is awareness of Britten in Russia, but not as much as one might think. Our programme there will be very in-depth – not just concerts, but the Pushkin Museum in Moscow will display artworks from the Britten-Pears collection and a Russian translation of the biography of Britten by David Matthews will be published. In Brazil the celebrations will be part of Transform, a four-year programme aimed at developing the cultural relationship between the UK and Brazil, leading up to the Rio Olympics.
‘In both Russia and Brazil, the British Council will be running a “Connecting Classrooms” project using The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, bringing schoolchildren together with those in the UK to create animated interpretations of the score. It will act as a springboard for young people around the world to learn more about each other’s cultures, using the powerful combination of music and art, both of which transcend language barriers. Versions of the project may also run in Europe and in the Middle East. Britten was a towering figure in English music as composer, performer and educator, and his music speaks to everyone; I am delighted that we have been able to work with the BPF to introduce it to a new generation of schoolchildren around the world, and I feel certain the Britten magic will work wherever it is performed.’
Colin Matthews, composer, BPF trustee, chair of the Britten Estate and formerly Britten’s musical amanuensis
‘Britten was to my mind the only major British composer of the past century to be a complete professional in the mould of Elgar, a consummate composer and performer, and in addition an activist, who founded the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival in order to get things done. That’s why his legacy runs so deep.
‘The Britten-Pears Foundation has been quite overwhelmed by the plans to perform Britten’s music next year ‒ I’d almost say that there may be too much of it, certainly too many War Requiems which might have been better saved for the anniversary of the first world war. But unlike with the centenaries of lesser composers, I don’t think there will be the feeling that we’ve heard too much ‒ not only will some of the works that are not a normal part of the repertoire get overdue recognition, but I suspect the appetite for Britten’s music will only increase. The big test will come in 2014!’