On the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, Mark Padmore brings us an exceptional recital programme of music by the British composer. Britten has a special place in the history of music, perhaps being the only composer who has won fame for his melodies as well as his operas. This interview with an outstanding composer of melodies tells us about the musician he continues to explore in the hope of discovering him for the first time – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot.
Britten is able to convey the feeling that melody and opera are fundamentally the same, differing only in scale. There are even similarities between his operas and his Church Parables, doing away with the boundary between church and opera. His vocal works seem to constitute an organic whole, with each interlinking part feeding upon the others. Are you of this opinion?
This is a very pertinent observation, based on the incredible wealth and plurality of Britten’s literary inspiration, for both his melodies and his operas. His entire work is inextricably linked to the beauty of the word, and he accomplishes – even transfigures – this unity of musical and poetic vision. His sources include poems by Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, John Donne, William Blake (for the cycle presented in this recital) and T.S. Eliot, and the literary sources for his libretti are just as significant, adding Thomas Mann, Henry James and Herman Melville to this list. As regards the Church Parables, I think that the opera aspects which may be detected are also related to Britten’s eminently practical and down-to-earth nature. Following some setbacks with major opera houses which he mistrusted somewhat, he was able to express his sensibility through his parables, allowing him to take charge of the creative process as well as the production of his work. In the same way, when his heart surgery left him with a partially paralysed right hand and thus incapable of accompanying Peter Pears ¬– his partner and person for whom his works were composed – on the piano, he composed a series of works for him, accompanied by Osian Ellis on the harp, as is the case with Canticle 5. But above all I feel that what unites his vocal works ¬– the framework which constitutes them – is the importance given to drama and the human element. For me there is an obvious parallel between the second Canticle ‘Abraham and Isaac’ and the opera Billy Budd, based on Melville’s text. Just as Abraham must sacrifice his son Isaac, Captain Vere must sacrifice the young Billy, and both are subject to a law – an irresistible force which compels them; Abraham and Vere form one body with a loved one’s suffering as they prepare for their dreadful fate. In the Biblical story, God intervenes at the last moment – which happens rarely in Britten’s works – and the innocent victim is not sacrificed. Britten reused the musical material from the second Canticle in the Offertorium of his War Requiem, which parodies the Biblical message with cold irony. One of the aspects of Billy Budd which we cannot hide is the theme of the love between two men, which is different from the filial love at the heart of the second Canticle.
The subject of the first Canticle, ‘My beloved is mine, and I am His’, based on a poem by 17th century mystic F. Quarles and on the Songs of Salomon, evokes the relationship between Christ and the sinner, but above all is a love declaration to Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and inspiration.
I think there is some ambiguity in all of Britten’s work, and that it is reflected in his character. He was a famous composer, admired by the establishment he was part of, who demonstrated great courage: his work disregards the morals and customs of his time. The first work which he devoted to Peter Pears, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, in 1942, is a rash love declaration at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in England and punishable by imprisonment. At the time Billy Budd was created, English theatre was still subject to censure, which lasted until 1968. Not only did Britten lift the veil on the deepest and most intimate feelings, but he dared to tackle the delicate subject of the love of an older man for a young man or boy, flouting conservative society, which was little inclined to consider the philosophical question of how feelings of love are experienced. The theme of the love of an older man for a younger man was not only explored by Britten in his operas Billy Budd and of course Death in Venice, but also in the melody Sokrates und Alkibiades based on Hölderlin’s text. The ambiguity and paradox at the heart of this man are also found just beneath the surface of his work. We never know what happened to Peter Grimes’ first apprentice, what justifies Captain Vere’s silence during Billy’s trial, or what the young Miles in Turn of the Screw did to be expelled from school. I feel that Britten’s genius also consists in taking us out of a comfort zone and in leaving us with questions rather than answers.
Britten often composed for a specific performer: the melodies based on Blake’s poems were dedicated to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the countertenor part of Canticle 4, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, was performed for the first time by James Bowman. How is an artist able to follow in the footsteps of illustrious predecessors and become part of a tradition?
I think that the problem has been much less significant for artists of my generation than for those of the generation following that of Peter Pears. I was fortunate to have discovered Britten through the prism of wonderful performances by Anthony Rolf Johnson and Philip Langridge, and to be able to distance myself more easily from Peter Pears’ impressive and distinctive representations.
Let us speak about your recital and its somewhat unique form. You will share the stage with countertenor Iestyn Davis and baritone Marcus Farnsworth. Is this the first time that you will present this programme and is it a way for you to compensate for ‘the solitude of the solo recitalist’?
No, this is not the first time that we are presenting this programme. A live recording of the same recital at Wigmore Hall will soon be released. The soloist recital as we know it is a relatively modern phenomenon from the second half of the 19th century, and the image we have of it is partly influenced by Fischer-Dieskau. Schubert never performed his Winterreise in one go, and it was only twenty years after Schumann’s death that an entire evening was dedicated to his Dichterliebe. In addition to the pleasure and freedom involved in choosing to perform with colleagues whom you respect and appreciate (as was the case with Britten), I feel that sharing the stage and providing the possibility to hear a variety of voices and different tones allows the audience to enjoy a unique experience. This recital, due to the number of vocal and instrumental performers (in addition to the piano, there will also be a harp and a horn), escapes the relative ‘danger’ – so to speak, with emphasis on the word ‘relative’ – faced by recitals with a more traditional form.
Interview by Rebecca Marcy