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Britten 100: Owen Wingrave

2 hours, 30 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 28 February 2013

Britten 100
Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave

Based on a short story by Henry James - to whom Britten had turned for inspiration in a previous opera, The Turn of the Screw - Owen Wingrave is a Jamesian ghost story at one level, and a pacifist response to militarism in general and the Vietnam War in particular.

Owen Wingrave is the last in a line of a family of proud and glorious soldiers - portraits of his ancestors adorn the walls of his family pile. Owen is being tutored in the art of war by Spencer Coyle, who runs a military cramming establishment, ahead of embarking on a traditional career in the military.

But instead of being inspired by the tales of his ancestors, Owen is appalled and vows never to join the army. Friends and family try at first to persuade Owen to change his mind. When this doesn't work, they turn on him and one by one reject him - even his intended, Kate. Owen's grandfather, General Sir Philip Wingrave, in disgust at his supposed cowardice, disinherits him. Only Coyle realises how much Wingrave spirit Owen is showing by refusing to back down from his principles.

Finally, Owen is challenged to prove his bravery in his pacifism by spending the night locked in a haunted room - a room where a Wingrave ancestor beat his own son to death for refusing to fight, before killing himself. A terrible scream is heard...

Britten's pacifism was such a deeply held conviction that it was instrumental in him leaving the UK in 1939 for the USA. He and Peter Pears experienced at first hand the shame and pressure to comply with the demands of his countrymen fighting the Nazis, so much so that Britten and Pears did return to the UK in 1942 (on a convoy in the middle of the Battle of the Atlantic!) and the two of them then went through the process of being declared Conscientious Objectors, where Britten had to present his reasons for not fighting. In his deposition to the War Board who decided such applications, he stated "The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation and I cannot take part in acts of destruction". Fast forward to the late 60's and with the war in Vietnam being in the news every day, it's not surprising that Britten should once again be drawn to this subject matter in Owen Wingrave.

Britten originally composed the opera for television; this Royal Opera production from 2007 used a version for reduced orchestra by David Matthews.

Presented by Penny Gore, who follows Owen Wingrave with well-loved music from another Britten opera, played by this week's featured orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic.

Owen, the last of the Wingraves ..... Jacques Imbrailo (baritone),
Spencer Coyle ..... Steven Page (bass-baritone),
Lechmere, Owen's friend ..... Thomas Walker (tenor),
Miss Wingrave, Owen's aunt ..... Vivian Tierney (soprano),
Mrs Coyle ..... Elizabeth Woollett (soprano),
Mrs Julian ..... Jennifer Rhys-Davies (soprano),
Kate, her daughter ..... Allison Cook (mezzo soprano),
General Sir Philip Wingrave, Owen's grandfather ..... Richard Berkeley-Steele (tenor),
Narrator ..... Toby Spence (tenor),
Students of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Kensington,
Members of the City of London Sinfonia,
Rory Macdonald (conductor).

Britten: Four Sea interludes, from Peter Grimes
BBC Philharmonic,
Yutaka Sado (conductor).

Music Played

3 items
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes


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