I can’t possibly let this day pass without at least a mention of Benjamin Britten. It’s impossible for any British composer of my generation to deny his influence completely, though while I was at university it was fashionable for jumped-up wannabes to do so; I wasn’t one of them, though I kept my love of Britten quiet when fellow wannabes were writing him off, because it seemed like the kind of thing that would make me look naive. So, let me put the record straight: as a child, then as a teenager, and now as an adult, a musician and an occasionally professional composer, I love Britten. I don’t claim to like all of his music, or even that it’s all great music (though plenty of it is), but his influence remains substantial, and one reason sticks out in particular:
Benjamin Britten was the last great composer to truly understand theatre.
A bold claim? Maybe. I’ll stand by it. Because for all the fine stuff I’ve read about Britten’s significance in his centenary year, nobody else has said it, and somebody ought to.
Of course it is often accurately stated that he single-handedly rehabilitated British opera, but that rehabilitation went far beyond writing first rate music, it was an exploration and expansion of the boundaries of opera as a form of theatre. Peter Grimes had popular appeal on the scale of a West End musical (‘Sadler’s Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman!’ as the possibly apocryphal route 38 bus conductor is oft quoted) because of the power of its storytelling as much as the accessibility of his musical style. He formed his own touring company to bring opera to wider audiences and in doing so introduced theatrical pragmatism into the scale of his work, which didn’t stop The Turn of the Screw from being a masterpiece. He did historical drama with rigorous attention to detail, achieving both factual and psychological accuracy. He produced interactive theatre for children and amateurs, without it sounding amateur or patronising. By his last opera he was pushing the limits of structure and theatrical fluidity. Bugger the rehabilitation of British opera, he was a great dramatist full stop – and that is in spite of the variable quality of his libretti, because the drama always came from the notes of the score. In fact, there’s precious little in his output that isn’t dramatic in some way – it’s what made him such an adept writer of songs.
It’s something I became acutely aware of two weekends ago at the excellent Bychkov-conducted War Requiem at the Albert Hall – another work that had immense popularity on its release and (probably not coincidentally) has had a backlash of snobbery from the artistic elite. I could point to the bits that are less successfully musically, but listening to it live I realised that it didn’t make any difference to the impact it had as a reflective, impassioned and utterly remorseless work. Thanks to Britten’s instinctive sense of drama, deft use of juxtaposition and the ability to produce massive effects with the tiniest gesture, in performance the work is greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.
Why do I feel Britten was the last great composer to achieve this? Because his consummate understanding of theatre is something subsequent great composers have somehow failed to pick up for themselves. Modern operas are often vast, impressive, musically tightly wrought and artistically experimental. They are also all too often really serious and nearly always outstay their welcome. And theatrical? Not that I’ve seen or heard. (And yes, you can hear theatricality in a great opera score – indeed, my first experience of Peter Grimes was lying on my bed as a teenager following the libretto as a CD reduced me to tears.) Somehow, music that is in any aspect subservient to drama has become the (admittedly rare) property of film, theatre and musicals – none of which are currently the domain of the genuinely great composer (I say that with respectful knowledge of the very very talented people working in those areas).
This is a far more useful thing to take from the Britten celebrations than the column inches eulogising about his empathy with the human spirit or about the pain of the loss of innocence and pacifism and closest homosexuality and blah blah blah – look, there’s plenty of video footage of the man and he doesn’t seem that miserable. Yes, he communicated the pain of being a human being brilliantly because he was a brilliant communicator – but let’s not forget that he also had a great sense of humour. Albert Herring is a sublime comic opera and A Midsummer Night’s Dream does the funny bits far better than a certain recent West End production I’d prefer to forget about.
Where are the 21st century comic operas? (Or to clarify, where are the 21st century operas that are actually funny?) Perhaps composers are so desperate to be taken seriously that they consider an actual comic opera a bit trivial.
Well, Britten didn’t.
I leave you with glorious evidence that Britten knew that opera singers could be funny as well as scary. And that opera could be for kids as well.