R3 Presenters - My Favourite Britten
Producer, R3 Multiplatform
We asked some of Radio 3's Britten Centenary Weekend presenters to tell us about their favourite pieces by Britten ...
I love the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The Suffolk coastline has an austere beauty that Britten captures in his music. The sea is a constant presence, but one with a changeable character – beguiling one moment, threatening the next. You can hear that Britten was intimately acquainted with it. It’s a part of the country I also know well – I live further down the Suffolk coast. A trip to Aldeburgh has always been a favourite day out. I’ll usually head straight for the sea – tramping across the steeply shelving beach, trying to flick bits of shingle out of my shoes, to reach the small strip of yellow sand at the water’s edge. Braving the water in the summer – it may be glittering with sunlight but it is always cold! - or going for a winter tramp along the tideline, running close as the waves suck out and, as they roll in, backing away just in time to keep my feet dry. Or standing with my back to the water and looking at the houses along the front – tall Victorian villas, with pastel-painted wrought iron balconies and porches, a few more modern buildings interspersed – among them Crag House – and the lifeboat station and, just inland from the beach, the Moot Hall. There’s usually time for fish and chips, (when I was young you were allowed to eat them on the beach) being dive-bombed by seagulls. And there’s the opportunity to buy shrimps or fresh fish from the lfishermen’s shacks, before heading home. All this comes to mind as soon as I hear the opening bars of the music. And having sat on the shingle this summer, watching the production of Peter Grimes on the Beach, with the sea for a backdrop and the sky streaked with pink as the sun set in the wake of a rainstorm, a lazy gull winging its way above the set, the music is more strongly evocative of Aldeburgh than ever.
While I must have encountered it before, I first remember really 'hearing' Britten's music when I went, as a music student, to a performance of the War Requiem. The piece completely poleaxed me. I vividly remember feeling a kind of visceral tremor at the Dies Irae; the blazing brass, the clarity of Britten's writing making those Latin words of vengeance sound as if they were newly-minted. The 'monstrous anger of the guns' of Wifred Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' had me swallowing back tears. I immediately got the score out of the library and was stunned by it – the potency of Britten's pacifism translated into music of searing beauty and desolation.
After leading a school orchestra in St Nicholas, I came to know Britten’s music best as a singer. His sacred choral music was a magical introduction for a young countertenor and choral scholar, and my first Britten solo was as the Mouse in Rejoice in the Lamb, whiskers bristling (and heart pounding, as I can remember to this day).
Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac: I first heard this seemingly simple piece from the inside out – singing, very falteringly, the part of Isaac to our local doctor’s Abraham; he could have been professional. Just two voices and piano, but what a wealth of drama: the sense of mysticism and the boy’s uneasiness so sparingly but vibrantly drawn. The Jesuits got it right about religion; the same applies to music – immersion as young as possible!
Les Illuminations is my choice: this is the one of the first pieces, for me, in which Britten's musical and emotional, poetic and sexual, sensuous and structural selves are fully revealed. Setting Rimbaud's poetry for solo voice and strings - originally soprano, but now a tenor, more often than not - the music amounts to a personal and artistic credo, above all in the motto from Rimbaud that Britten sets 3 times in the course of the cycle: 'I alone have the key to this savage parade'. That was the privilege and responsibility Britten felt was the artist's destiny in life: to see what others could not, to say what society and convention suggested he shouldn't, to be an outsider in some existential sense, yet able to express the deeper and often darker emotional truths that surge under the surface. Composed in 1939 as Britten crossed the Atlantic as a homosexual conscientious objector, the music of Les Illuminations has a coruscating power; here, in his mid-20s, is a composer who had triumphantly found his voice and who was beginning to realise who he was as a man and an artist, too.
- Radio Britten Centenary Weekend - full details
- Discovering Britten - Radio 3 Discovering Music Programmes
- Listen to Britten - Audio Collection
- Aldeburgh Music - Britten Centenary