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Remembering Benjamin Britten

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Categories: british composers, contemporary classical music
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Although we are now firmly in 2014 and have left the Britten centennial year behind, I didn’t want to head in to the Richard Strauss 150 years, or indeed even the William Lloyd Webber 100 years celebrations without a final reflection on arguably the UK’s greatest and certainly the most influential 20th century composer.

In late November last year, I had the good fortune to attend the annual St Cecilia’s Day Service arranged by the Musicians Benevolent Fund (now called Help Musicians UK) as part of the Festival of St Cecilia.  It was held this year at Westminster Abbey (it rotates Three Choirs Festival style between the great traditions of the Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and St Pauls Cathedral), and involved the choirs of all three churches.

A true celebration of great English music with particular emphasis on the 20th and 21st centuries, there were works by Britten, Ireland, Tippett, Howells, Vaughan Williams and two living composers, Robin Holloway and Robert Walker. It was exciting, inspiring and deeply touching to hear music of such breadth and diversity and yet linked in so many ways – sometimes pupil to teacher, certainly peer to peer and often by texts and by aspiration which for centuries have been the gifts to creative artists of liturgy and the cathedral tradition in the UK.

The Britten works included, for organ, Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria; as processional, A Hymn to the Virgin; the anthem, A Hymn to St Columba; and, gloriously for the occasion, his setting in C of Te Deum laudamus.  A small act of remembrance included the placing of flowers on the stone where his remains are interred, close by those of the great English composer, Henry Purcell.

Britten’s output, of course, was not confined to ecclesiastical music and his is probably one of the broadest and most diverse repertoires of any composer of the 20th century.  tutti has several interesting recordings which place Britten’s music in the context of that of his peers, such as Tippett and Berkeley, all on – A Century of English Song on the SOMM label, performed by Sarah Leonard, soprano and Malcolm Martineau, piano, and again with Bridge and Ireland (Britten’s teachers) alongside Stevenson, Berkeley and Colin Matthews, all on – Britten: Resonances, performed by Anthony Goldstone on the Divine Art label or in the rather different company of Rodney Bennett and Lutyens, with a touch of the Catalan in Roberto Gerhard, all on – Love from a Stranger – Four British Film Scores, an early NMC recording.

Britten’s influence is undiminished in the 21st century, so to conclude, a recommendation for the sheet music of a work for guitar composed in 2013 especially for the Britten celebrations and first performed and toured in the USA by the brilliant young Scottish guitarist, Ian Watt –

Fantasy from Themes of Britten’s Gloriana by Scottish composer, John McLeod

And, finally, here’s a little gem of a  video I found on YouTube of a performance in 1956, captured on Japanese TV of Peter Pears singing Purcell, accompanied by Ben Britten.

Peter Pears and Ben Britten perform Purcell Songs on Japanese TV in 1956.

Simply beautiful!
Sarah Rodgers

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