I once met the infamous avant-garde composer John Cage. Had I known the impact he had on musical life, not just classical but in general, I might have tried to engage him in more conversation than directing him to the toilets, and telling him where to get a sandwich. It was shortly before I went on to do a degree in Music at University, and he was speaking at my music college. The establishment I went on to (sporadically) attend was a hotbed of modern and avant-garde music (or contemporary as they like to call it) so I actually bumped into more famous and brilliant composers, but never one more famous that Cage. In our composition classes, talk of British music invariably led to one person, a brilliant, prolific and quite daring composer – Benjamin Britten. In this the year of his centenary, there are events going on all over the world, including Sheffield’s own ‘a boy was born’ festival. I spoke to the curator, Stewart Campbell.
Hi, can you tell us a little about the festival?
A Boy Was Born is a yearlong festival of music celebrating 100 years of the composer Benjamin Britten. The festival will promote better understanding of his life, work as composer and musical innovator; in addition to examining the broader context of arts and culture in the 20th century. Encompassing talks, concerts, films, musical theatre productions and expansive education work, internationally acclaimed visiting artists perform alongside community musical organisations from February – December in over 40 events.
And Britten himself – can you tell us a little about him?
There’s obviously a great deal to tell but I’ll endeavour to keep this as short as possible – Born in Suffolk in 1913 Britten was very musical from an early age. In 1927 he started composition lessons with Frank Bridge and he later went on to study at the Royal College of Music. Eventually he met the tenor Peter Pears, who would become his life partner, but professional one too. An exceptional pianist, his thrilling interpretations of song with Peter Pears achieved international renown, and Pears become and essential vehicle in Britten’s vocal writing. Britten’s ‘big break’ if you like came with the opera Peter Grimes, which revolutionised British opera. Britten then went on to start his own opera group and essentially created the chamber opera – operas that could tour smaller theatres and reach new audiences. The 20th century brought a substantial change in British music, and Britten was very much at the forefront of this cultural shift. Developments in technology included advancements in recording and broadcasting, which led to the establishment of the BBC and new ways to engage with music and new audiences to reach. The strive to boost morale in the wake of World War II led to increased government subsidies for the arts and the formation of the Arts Council. There came changes in the licensing of music and the creation of a new music publishing company Faber Music, the start of the renowned Aldeburgh Festival, and a vision to turn a local malt-house into a world famous Snape Maltings concert Hall. Britten was involved in these new developments from the beginning and wielded considerable influence on their formation and effectiveness. Britten left us more than 100 major works and he died in 1976, after becoming the first composer to receive a peerage.
The festival is named after an early work of Britten’s – Is the festival a celebration of this early work, or a choral based festival, or just a celebration as a whole?
The Festival is named after Britten’s Op.3, the work is a choral work but the festival isn’t a choral festival as such (although it features a significant amount of choral music – Britten was an exceptional composer of music for voice.) The birth reference naturally attracted me as a possible title for celebrating the birth and life of a composer. More significantly A Boy Was Born was one of Britten’s first works to gain widespread attention. Its first broadcast was actually on the same day the composer Edward Elgar died – another English great and I thought that rather symbolic, perhaps one composer passing the baton on to the next.
As a composer Britten worked prolifically in almost every genre. His mastery of the orchestra, his brilliant and versatile approach to musical drama, his ingenuity and sensitivity in the marriage of music and text in song, and his commitment to making music accessible to all by composing for amateurs and children has ensured his music still continues to enthrall and capture the imagination of audiences around the world. I wanted to represent the breadth of Britten’s output in my programming, and Sheffield audiences will certainly have an opportunity to experience the variety of styles and genres present in his compositions.
To the general public, Brittens work is possibly as well-known or well-loved as the other two giants of British music, Vaughan-Williams and Elgar – Why do you think that is?
I’m not convinced either composers’ music is more ‘well known’ or ‘well loved’ than the others but I guess they’re appreciated in very different ways. Vaughan Williams has the reputation of being a ‘pastoral composer’. He used a great deal of folk song in his music, and consequently his music sounds quintessentially English perhaps connecting him with the musical spirit of Britain. Earlier Elgar too had a reputation for producing characteristically English music. After two World Wars perhaps audiences felt a sense of patriotism towards this music. Britten made a conscious effort to set himself apart from this quintessentially English soundworld and the young composer admired composers like Stravinsky and Berg. Britten later left England in 1938 for America after feeling disillusioned with the English musical establishment, and when war broke out and he didn’t immediately return to England he was incredibly unpopular. Not the best of starts, but this obviously changed and in subsequent years he went on to dominate British music. Perhaps in comparison to Elgar and Vaughan Williams audiences might find Britten’s music as being difficult and modern, but I hope the festival will enable Britten’s music to be communicated more widely.
When and where can we see the festival, and buy tickets for it?
Events are taking place in various venues, dates/times all over the city from Tuesday 19 February – Sunday 15 December. Tickets can be purchased online and over the telephone, details on our website www.aboywasborn.co.uk
You’ve a very wide range of ensembles performing across the year, some local and some international – was that the idea?
Absolutely – as mentioned Britten composed prolifically for almost every genre, and with a commitment to providing music for the masses he inevitably composed for a range of abilities, from children in the local community to some of the most renowned musicians on the world stage. I certainly wanted to mirror this idea in my programming.
Are there any rare, or underperformed works getting an airing at the festival?
Yes there are actually, I’m informed one work for example ‘The Company Of Heaven’ is only being performed in Sheffield, an extraordinary feat considering so many Britten concerts are taking place around the world this year.
Britten wrote a lot with the poet Auden, whose text he used for ‘A boy is born’. How influential do you think he was on Britten and his work?
‘A Boy Was Born’ actually sets old English texts and not Auden, however I do think Auden was incredibly influential on the young Britten, but also vice versa. In the ten or so years they remained in contact (they met in 1935 where both artists were working for the General Post Office Film Unit producing documentary films) they were mutually influencing each other’s work in addition to each other’s political and artistic ideas. Britten set a number of Auden’s poems, and Auden wrote specifically for Britten too.
From a personal point of view as the curator of the festival, what are going to be your highlights?
A very difficult question to answer as there is so much taking place. I’m particularly looking forward to contributions from the community organisations in the city – there is an incredible array of talent in Sheffield that we should be proud of and I’m thrilled to feature this in the festival. I’m also looking forward to performances from visiting artists of the highest international standing, The Chilingirian Quartet (featuring Sheffield former Lindsay Quartet violinist Ronald Birks), Cellist Natalie Clein and tenor John Mark Ainsley. Also of course the operatic works, the live cinema broadcast of Gloriana from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Winter Garden and Turn of the Screw.
He really was a prolific composer - are there works that aren’t being performed that you would like to have put on the festival?
A considerable amount! The War Requiem for one, one of Britten’s greatest (and certainly largest works). He also composed a series of mini-operas intended to be performed in Church – the ‘Church Parables’ which I’m incredibly disappointed didn’t feature. There’s one in particular, Curlew River based on a Japanese Noh play. It’s a heart breaking story – A ‘madwoman’ (played by a male tenor) searching for her lost child listens to a tragic story on a ferry crossing about a little boy who has been murdered, she quickly discovers this little boy is her own child. It’s as you can imagine an overwhelmingly intense, distressing work but in turn features some of the most hauntingly beautiful music Britten ever wrote. Although I scarcely perform opera the role of the ‘madwoman’ is a very unusual and appealing one and would be an interesting challenge. Maybe one day!
And you yourself are performing - The Sechs Höderlin Fragmente. a challenging work? People might be suprised to see a Britten composition in German?
The Sechs Höderlin Fragmente is Britten’s only song cycle in German (although he also set German in one or two other pieces, including a setting of a Goethe poem.) People might be surprised to see a Britten composition in German yes, but in fact Britten was an excellent interpreter of language. In addition to the German cycle we have French (Les Illuminations, Quatre Chansons Francaises), Italian (Michelengelo Sonnets) and even Russian (The Poet’s Echo.) It’s a wonderful work, the text includes many of Britten’s own preoccupations, an abhorrence towards the idea of innocence corrupted, a prolonging to celebrate the joys of childhood, and the idea of mortality and the inevitability of old age and the end of life. As with all of Britten’s music he sets the text incredibly sensitively and imaginatively, and there is always interesting interplay with the piano accompaniment. As a performer it makes interpretation an interesting a thoroughly rewarding experience.
I’m intrigued by Emil and the Detectives – Can you tell us a little about that?
Emil and the Detectives was a book by Erich Kästner which Britten was particularly fond of as a child. He always intended on creating a work based on this, but sadly this dream was never realised. As mentioned previously Britten composed a great deal of music for children, so it was important for me that children’s music featured in the programme. We’re therefore working with Sheffield Cathedral’s outreach initiative Sing! by composing a new Children’s opera based on this story.
And something for Jazz fans as well?
Yes – The Utter Jazz Collective will in October perform a new programme of music based on Britten’s settings of Auden texts. Actor Rodger Lloyd Pack will intersperse this with readings of Auden poetry. I’ve already mentioned Britten was a sophisticated admirer of poetry, but he also had a wonderful melodic gift. I think this creates interesting opportunities for reworking these songs in jazz.
And it all concludes in December with the Requiem; a fitting end to the festival?
The festival comes to a conclusion on Sunday 15 December with the Sinfonia Da Requiem (not to be confused with the War Requiem). It’s an extraordinary feat of orchestral writing and a fitting and to the festival I think.
Has it been a labour of love putting it all together?
I began working on the festival in early 2011 and with any project this comes lots of highs and lows, obstacles and challenges and huge achievements. Britten’s music has been with me all my life – one of my first big concerts as a boy chorister was Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, one of the first records I bought was A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Peter Grimes was the second opera I ever saw. That combined with discovering the songs as a young adult, Britten’s music occupies a very special place in my heart, and it’s been a fantastic opportunity to get to know more about this extraordinary musician whom I admire so much. I hope my enthusiasm towards Britten is infectious and that the festival will enable this music to be communicated more widely in Sheffield.