Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Classics: "Lo! An angel called him out of heaven" -- another peek at the sound world of Benjamin Britten


Rembrandt's "Sacrifice of Isaac" (in the Hermitage)

Lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

-- from Wilfred Owen's "Parable of the Old Man and the Young"
(used in the Offertorium of Britten's War Requiem)

by Ken


In our previous Sneak peek into the sound world of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), one of the works we looked at a bit was the War Requiem composed for the rededication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, of which the original had been bombed out in 1940, in 1962. We even heard a bit of the War Requiem, though not the bit I really wanted you to hear.

By the time of the Coventry commission, the British had mostly made peace with the stark fact that their greatest composer since, well, at least since Purcell, but in fact since forever, was this man who was and yet wasn't quite one of them, who was English to the core and yet somehow an outsider.

Two obvious factors not only epitomized his alienness but would each automatically have disqualified him from being considered a proper English gentleman: He was homosexual, and he was a pacifist. When he and his partner Peter Pears made the decision to return to England from the U.S. in 1942, they knew they would be confronted immediately with the issue of the draft. The more Britten agonized with it, the more sure he seems to have become that he could not in good conscience kill. His appeal for conscientious-objector status was very public, and while it was eventually accepted, it was also remembered. The "warrior" self-image, though often comical, is kind of central to British manhood in the best of times; at a time when the country was still hostage to German rockets and bombs, pacifism didn't sit well. And that male partner of his didn't enhance his qualifications for conventional British manhood.

For the Coventry commission, though, Britten began to seem like the perfect choice, especially when he revealed his plan: a major choral piece that would intersperse the standard Latin Requiem text with poems by the great English pacifist poet Wilfred Owen, who had felt conscience-bound to serve in World War I, and was killed by enemy fire at Joncourt in the north of France on November 4, 1918, a week before the armistice went into effect ending the war. Britten managed to make a package of the carnage of the two world wars, with its rapidly growing technological prowess, and the terror of the new nuclear age.

The Owen poems would be sung by soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, which in many performances calls for a conductor of its own. (In the early performances, in fact, the composer conducted the chamber orchestra and soloists.) As a demonstration of multinational intent, the solo parts were written for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (the wife of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, one of Britten's most cherished musical colleagues), Britten's partner Peter Pears, and the German baritone (yes, even the instigators/vanquished of the world wars were included!) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though the Soviet government refused to allow Vishnevskaya to participate in the premiere, no doubt spooked by this gay pacifist peace propaganda. (Fortunately, saner heads prevailed in the Kremlin in time for Vishnevskaya to sing in the recording made in January 1963.)

The section of the War Requiem that concerns us is the roughly 10-minute Offertorium, which falls smack in the middle of the piece (which runs a bit under 82 minutes in the composer's recording). The Offertorium comes in two parts: first the Domine Jesu Christe, then the Hostias.


1. Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae
Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory,
deliver the souls of all the faithful
departed from the pains of hell
and from the depths of the pit; deliver
them from the lion's mouth, that hell
devour them not, that they fall not into darkness.

[Sed signifer sanctus Michael]
But let the standard-bearer Saint Michael
bring them into the holy light:
which of old Thou didst promise
unto Abraham and his seed.

2. Hostias et preces tibi, Domine
We offer unto Thee, o Lord, sacrifices
of prayer and praise: do Thou receive
them for the souls of those whose memory
we this day recall; make them, O Lord,
to pass from death unto life,
which of old Thou didst promise to Abraham
and his seed.

The Latin text set by Britten is so standard that as far as I can see it is identical to that used by Mozart and Verdi, allowing for the optional repeat of the phrase "which of old Thou didst promise unto Abraham and his seed," from the end of the Domine Jesu Christe, at the end of the Hostias. Mozart repeats it; Verdi doesn't. Britten repeats. Boy, does he repeat! With regard to the basic text, there's rather more variety in the settings of Berlioz and especially Fauré.

[CORRECTION: Sorry, don't know what I was thinking, but Verdi repeats the Abraham promise too, just like Mozart and Britten. I must have been overly focused on trying to find a place to mention the breathtaking tenor solo with which Verdi launches the Hostias -- especially as sung by Jussi Bjoreling in our clip below.]

Now any composer undertaking a new setting of the Requiem stands at the end of a line that includes forebears as intimidating as these. Come to think of it, why don't we hear how they handled this section?


MOZART: Requiem, K. 626 (ed. H. C. Robbins Landon):
Offertorium: Domine Jesu; Hostias

Arleen Auger, soprano; Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; Vinson Cole, tenor; René Pape, bass; Vienna State Opera Concert Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded live Dec. 5, 1991 (200th anniversary of Mozart's death)

VERDI: Messa da Requiem:
Offertorio: Domine Jesu; Hostias

Leontyne Price, soprano; Rosalind Elias, mezzo-soprano; Jussi Bjoerling, tenor; Giorgio Tozzi, bass; Vienna Singverein, Vienna Philharmonic, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/Decca, recorded 1959

BERLIOZ: Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5:
Offertorium; Hostias

New England Conservatory Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 26-27, 1959

FAURÉ: Requiem, Op. 48:

John Carol Case, baritone (in the Hostias); BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, Nadia Boulanger, cond. Live performance, November 1968

Britten wasn't intimidated by this challenge. (Or if he was, he didn't let it stop him.) First he had the inspiration of using his boys' choir, distant and ethereal, to invoke God in the first section of the Domine Jesu and the whole of the Hostias. Then he detected a change of voice in the Domine Jesu, at the line "Sed signifer sanctus Michael." This is where the main chorus takes over from the angelic boys, eventually launching a fugue at mention of the promise to Abraham and his seed.

Most crucially, of course, Britten pounced on that promise to Abraham and his seed. The story of Abraham and Isaac clearly had resonance for him; he had written a church canticle on the subject in 1952. (He borrowed a theme from it for the "Quam olim Abrahae" fugue.) And he seized this opportunity to insert the astonishing Wilfred Owen poem "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young":

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The poem is set for the baritone and tenor soloists, launched by the baritone using the tune of the fugue triggered by the promise to Abraham. For this setting Britten borrowed a trick he had used in the Abraham and Isaac canticle, where the alto soloist spoke Isaac's lines and the tenor Abraham's, and the two together represented the voice of God. Here the baritone handles the narration and lines that belong to the father; the tenor handles lines referring to the son; and the call of the angel is represented by a haunting chorale of tenor and baritone, which reaches dazzling heights on the line "Behold, a ram," as the angel points out an alternative sacrifice the old man can offer to God.

And here Wilfred Owen offers his horrifying twist. Abram has already signaled his willingness to sacrifice his son -- and here we might wonder what sort of psychotic, sociopathic God would think to ask such a monstrous sacrifice. Is that a God to be worshipped or reviled? (Eventually the Christians would get into the act and embroider the psychosis and sociopathology by deciding that God in fact sacrificed his son. See? Nothing to it!)

Britten didn't attempt a big, blood-splattering setting of the line in which Abram slays "half the seed of Europe, one by one," Owen's invocation of the then-unimaginable carnage of World War I (before he himself became one of its last victims), a catastrophe that scarred the psyche of Europe -- but didn't prevent Europeans from doing it all over, on an even more brutal scale, a mere two decades later. What he did was to bring his angelic boys back to intone the "Hostias," offering up "sacrifices of praise and prayer," along with, as the soloists keep insisting, "half the seed of Europe, one by one."

Here's how the whole thing plays in the composer's recording:

Peter Pears, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Highgate School Choir, Bach Choir, Melos Ensemble, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Benjamin Britten, cond. Decca, recorded January 1963

I've never been all that happy with this performance, and in particular with this section of it, what with Pears sounding so otherworldly and Fischer-Dieskau, well, fischer-dieskau-ing his bloody way through the lines, and the whole of the Offertorium seems, well, surprisingly bloodless. I couldn't say I was much happier with the alternatives, though, until Kurt Masur, who had already recorded the War Requiem in New York, got a second crack at it in the London Philharmonic's own live-performance series. I'm a lot happier with this:

Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor; Gerald Finley, baritone; Tiffin Boys' Choir, London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Neville Creed and Kurt Masur, cond. LPO, recorded live May 8, 2005


Britten's volume of viable operatic output is the largest since Richard Strauss's, and it's hard to imagine anyone approaching it. We've talked about Peter Grimes, and last night I offered a glimpse of the totally different sensory world he created for his adaptation of Henry James's ghostly Turn of the ScrewI've been pressing the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes on you for months now, in particular the first of them, "Dawn," which links the Prologue and Act I of the opera. I think we need to get a feeling for how the interludes function in context.

If you want to take one last listen to the "Dawn" interlude by itself, Leonard Bernstein's 1973 recording with the New York Philharmonic is just a click away in Friday's preview. Now for the context.

The Prologue to Peter Grimes begins with an inquest into the storm death of the young apprentice of the much-disliked local fisherman Peter Grimes. When the widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford testifies that on the night in question she did what she could to help, and the lawyer Swallow asks, "Why should you help this kind of fellow -- callous, brutal, and coarse?," we know a lot about the relationship between the community and "this kind of fellow," Grimes.

The death is finally ruled accidental, but Grimes is cautioned not to get another boy apprentice, to have an adult fisherman assist him, which Grimes points out is economically impossible. ("Like every other fisherman, I have to have an apprentice.") Peter, well aware that he doesn't fit in with the gossipy, interfering villagers, is left bemoaning the injustice, and Ellen tries to encourage him. The "Dawn" interlude slides in just at the end of the Ellen-Grimes scene, and at the other end gives way to the village's morning awakening routines.

Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes

Heather Harper (s), Ellen; Jon Vickers (t), Grimes; John Pritchard, cond. Live performance, Dec. 10, 1977

Peter Pears as Grimes in the 1969 BBC TV production

Claire Watson (s), Ellen; Peter Pears (t), Grimes; Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, Benjamin Britten, cond. Decca, recorded December 1958


I think it's generally accepted that the massive stroke that disabled Britten once he had completed his last opera, the Thomas Mann adaptation Death in Venice, was brought on in part, or at least precipitated, by the race-against-death effort he was making to finish it, while already seriously unwell.

I've told this story before, but it still gives me a shiver. It was generally supposed that Britten had been reduced to a vegetative state. My first inkling to the contrary came in a report in High Fidelity magazine by European correspondent Ted Greenfield (music critic of The Guardian), in which he reported that the ghostly presence felt watching over the next Aldeburgh Festival, the composer's and Peter Pears's pet project, was no ghost, but the reclusive composer himself, keeping an eye on things while taking advantage of the privacy afforded by the general supposition of his incapacitation.

Having been found out, Britten even consented to an interview, in which he revealed that he had in fact resumed composing. It wasn't a long reprieve he had been granted, but in that time he composed some remarkable music, notably the cantata Phedre, written for mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, and his Third String Quartet, written for the Amadeus Quartet.

The Third Quartet is a haunting piece, and inescapably also a reflection on death. It's strange how Britten's musical world converges at the end with that of his friend Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), whom he outlived by not quite 15 months. As Shostakovich's access to the West increased, the two great composers developed a warm relationship, based on enormous admiration for each other's music. Shostakovich too had said his farewell in a string quartet, the ghostly 15th. Some of you may recall that the twisty road into this piece was my insistence, way back when, that we have already had our last three great composers, and that they are Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Shostakovich, and Britten, who through the sheer force of their creative personalities managed to wring what seems to me the last bit of juice out of the exhausted old harmonic language, for which we have yet to find more than tiny-stopgap extensions or alternatives.

(Let me say once again that the exhaustion of the musical language in place at any particular time doesn't seem to have any effect on the viability of what's already been written. It just seems to limit the extent to which anything more can be wrung out of that collection of parts.)

Which I guess makes the Britten Third Quartet just about the end of the line. I'm not going to say anything more about the piece. Let's listen as a warmup to the first and third of its five movements, "Duets" and "Solo," then hear the whole thing played by the dedicatees of the piece, the Amadeus Quartet.

BRITTEN: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94

i. Duets

Endellion Quartet (Andrew Watkinson and James Clark, violins; Garfield Jackson, viola; David Waterman, cello). EMI, recorded Jan.-May 1986

iii. Solo

Britten Quartet (Peter Manning and Peter Lale, violins; Keith Pascoe, viola; Andrew Shulman, cello). Collins, recorded October 1989

i. Duets
ii. Ostinato
iii. Solo
iv. Burlesque
v. Recitative and Passacaglia: La Serenissima

Amadeus Quartet (Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel, violins; Peter Schidlof, viola; Martin Lovett, cello). Decca, recorded March 1978



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At 12:11 PM, Anonymous JonJ said...

Fine discussion of Britten. However, I'm not sure I agree with your view that the 20th-century musical language has been exhausted. The comparison of music with language is problematic in itself, but even accepting that metaphor, one could argue that the possibilities of the English language are not yet exhausted. Masterpieces still can be written with the same alphabet and the same nouns, verbs, and grammar. Maybe we have to wait for another Shakespeare or Dickens or the like, but that's a matter of waiting for another person, not the invention of another language.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

That's the thing, Jon, I'm not using "language" as a metaphor; I'm referring to MUSICAL language, literally -- the elements, principally involving tonality, from which music is put together.. All you have to do is trace it through the several hundred years of Western classical music. That's simply what happened: The musical language simply got expanded every time it was needed, from the baroque through the classical through the romantic periods. The available language NEVER remained stagnant.

The last harmonic push was Wagner's into chromatic harmony, and then by the early deacdes of the 20th century THAT had been pushed as far as it could go. What do you think Schoenberg was so desperate about? His 12-tone system was crap, but it was concocted for a purpose -- to provide an extended musical language base to work in. And of course Schoenberg would have known, since in his Gurre-Lieder he was one of the people who pushed the old language as far as it would go. Richard Strauss was another, and you'll notice that with Elektra he clearly decided he'd gone too far and pulled back, and then worked the rest of his life in the territory he already knew, which he also knew was drying up.

It's not exactly a brand-new development: It was the subject that preoccupied composers in, say, the middle third of the 20th century. But still nobody's found a solution.

Am I saying that nothing of musical value has been created since the death of Britten? Um, well, yeah, I guess. I can't think of a single piece written since then that I wouldn't be happy to never hear again. (Hey, I've put in my time with Elliott Carter! But to me it's just musical pig Latin. It reads back what you've read into it.)

I don't think composers have suddenly become hopelessly stupid or unoriginal. They've got a problem with basic materials, which Bach and Beethoven and Wagner didn't, because they had whole no areas of musical language where nobody had trod before.

I wish there were something metaphorical about the concept of musical language. Then we might be able to invent our way out of this fix.


Oh, since then, as I suggested, some short-term gain was yielded by importing


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