in: News & Features

March 10, 2010

Japan to Accept Britten Score, 70 Years after its Commission

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The Consul General of Japan in Boston, Masaru Tsuji, will be the NEC Philharmonia concert at Jordan Hall this evening [March 10] to receive a copy of the Benjamin Britten score, Sinfonia da Requiem. Originally commissioned by the Japanese government in 1940 for a celebration of the 2600th anniversary of that country, the composition was, according to Ben Zander, rejected because of its Christian movement titles and was never performed in Japan.

Benjamin Zander, guest conductor of the NEC Philharmonia, notes, “We are deeply moved by Britten’s composition and by the grace of Japan’s esteemed diplomatic representative in receiving the score 70 years after the event.”

Dear Mr Tsuji,

I received your message through your assistant, Ms Hansen and I wish to reply with great respect and affection for a new friend.

I think I have managed to unravel the story of the Britten work.

It seems clear that the British Consul in Tokyo informed Benjamin Britten that the Japanese Consulate had received the score and paid the commission, but was not willing to accept or perform the work, since it was not considered suitable for the occasion.  The committee stated “it did not express felicitations for the 2,600th anniversary of our country.” and was “purely a religious music of a Christian nature.”

Of course, the reaction of the Japanese was perfectly understandable.  They had asked a number of prominent Western composers to submit compositions for the celebration of an important anniversary of their country.  It was  reasonable to expect that the pieces would be joyful and uplifting.  It also was tactless of Britten to use Christian titles when he was writing a piece for a country that was not Christian.

However, Britten was 26 years old, a passionate opponent  of war and a conscientious objector.  It is perhaps not surprising that he ignored the nature of the invitation and wrote a piece of music from the depths of his soul, expressing his horror of the war that had just broken out in Europe and forced his exile to America.

The unfortunate thing is that the refusal of this masterwork has put the Japanese in an unfavorable light and the issue remains something of a diplomatic embarrassment to this day, since it is invariably mentioned in books and the program notes whenever the work is written about or performed.

We could leave the matter as it is, however, I would welcome an opportunity to say something at the concert about the transformation that has taken place in the world since that time.  I believe our young people are generally ignorant about  the past and  I feel it is our role, not only to point out the relevance of the music they play to the time it was written, but also to offer our guidance in developing a healthy and open-hearted attitude to the actions of previous generations.

This is what I would propose to say at the concert, if you would grant your permission:

In 1940 Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the Japanese Government to write a piece to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of their country.

Britten, at 26 years old and a passionate opponent of all war, perhaps not surprisingly ignored the call for a festive, celebratory work and produced instead a work that expressed his violent outrage and grief at the carnage already being perpetrated in Europe. Moreover, by giving Christian titles to each of the movements, he must have realized that the work would not find favor in a non-Christian country.

Predictably, the Japanese authorities informed Britten, through the British Consulate, that the work was unacceptable because “it did not express felicitations for the 2,600th anniversary of our country.” Also, since it used titles to each movement that were taken from the Latin Mass, it would be offensive to the Japanese people.

One year later the Japanese were at war with the Allies and the tension that this situation caused has not been resolved to this day..

We intend to resolve it tonight.

From the vantage point of our time, we can recognize that not only is the Sinfonia da Requiem a timeless masterpiece – perhaps Britten’s greatest work for orchestra – but it is also a moving plea for peace – a cause to which all Japanese people today are fervently committed.

We, in Boston, are most fortunate that our current Japanese Consul General Mr Tsuji is a man of deep sensibility and both cultural and moral awareness.  Mr Tsuji is present tonight.

At the end of the performance he will accept a copy of the score as a symbol of friendship between our nations and a recognition that, at last, wisdom and understanding prevail amongst our people.

We can feel the terrible anguish in Britten’s work – the protest and grief of the first movement; the violence and madness of the second movement and the deeply felt pleas for consolation and peace in the Finale.    The titles – Tears; Day of Judgement and Plea for Eternal Peace are no longer  seen only as Christian, but rather as universal categories of despair, pity  and hope for redemption, in which all peoples of the world can share.

We are deeply moved by Britten’s composition and by the grace of Japan’s esteemed diplomatic representative in receiving the score, seventy years after the event.

Thank you.

Warm wishes

Ben

4 Comments

  1. This is confusing.

    Has there been a ban on performances of the work in Japan up to now? And did the Japanese government itself actually request a copy — a copy only? — of the score?

    It’s not at all clear — perhaps intentionally — just whose initiative this really was. No doubt veteran Zander watchers, long accustomed to being amazed and appalled, will have their suspicions.

    And that “letter” leaves an impression its author surely cannot have intended. ” … The tension that this situation caused,” he writes, “has not been resolved to this day. We intend to resolve it tonight.” Note the solidly planted cue for applause, Meanwhile, b.s. detectors all over the city start to go off.

    It is not correct, either, to say that the war in Europe “forced his [Britten’s] exile to America.” Forced? England was never invaded. And most of Britten’s contemporaries stayed home.

    As to “the story of the Britten work” that Zander says he “managed to unravel,” this is common knowledge — anyone with a valid library card could found out the same.

    If you think about it, Mr. Tsuji, the Consul General, wasn’t in any position to decline what was being presented to him, was he?

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 11, 2010 at 2:41 am

  2. I welcome a chance to respond to Mr Buell, whose colorful prose we used to enjoy in the Boston Globe.

    The letter I wrote to Mr Tsuji was intended for him personally, not for publication. I was very surprised indeed to see in printed in full in BI!
    I had shared it with Ellen Pfeiffer (also sorely missed as a wonderfully wise and insightful music critic at the Boston Herald, and now in charge of publicity at NEC), who shared it with BI.

    Let me explain: Mr Tsuji was at first understandably wary of my invitation to accept the score of Sinfonia da Requiem, since he was under the impression that the Government of Japan had already accepted it back in 1940. Hence my remark that I had “unraveled the story of what actually happened”. I of course didn’t have to do any original scholarship to find the facts, they were all cogently laid out in the Program Note for the concert by Richard Freed. But Mr Tsuji did not know all the facts, nor did he have time (nor probably a library card) to research the matter.

    Since he thought that the composition had been accepted by the Japanese at the time, it would be meaningless to “accept it again”, as it were. During my conversation with Mr Tsuji at the Japanese Consulate I pointed out that the score had been received, but not accepted. This led to a delightful discussion of the subtle difference between “to receive” and ” to accept”. Once he had understood the true circumstance, he was able to agree to “accept” the score at the concert – a gesture that was, of course, entirely symbolic. Mr Buell seems to want to invest it with much more impact than was intended. He forgets that I am a teacher, and my job is to engage with the music students at NEC about matters concerning the music they are performing.

    There is no question whose initiative this was. It was mine. Benjamin Britten was an important figure in my early life and it was my first engagement with the Sinfonia Da Requiem. I was troubled, as I read more about the circumstances of the work’s composition, that the Japanese always appeared as the villains in the saga – insensitive, belligerent, war-mongering country rejects masterpiece by leading British composer. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Benjamin Britten himself had caused the problem. What was he thinking? Japan had asked for a celebratory work for a national anniversary and he wrote a work about war, full of anger, strife and dissonance. Moreover, he titled the movements with words from the Roman Catholic Mass! He clearly wasn’t thinking about Japan, he was thinking about his own experience. There was no way the Japanese could have accepted the piece for that occasion.

    However, now we can step back from the parochial circumstances of 70 years ago and see that actually the work – a moving and poignant plea for peace – is a perfect message for our time AND for Japan, a leading voice in the international quest for peace. This is called Transformation – when one set of circumstances is re-framed to cause a completely different perspective – no-one is wrong and a situation that had formerly created strife and bad feeling is suddenly seen to create harmony and light. This was a profound learning experience for the students and it released in them a quite extraordinary unity of purpose in the performance which was clearly transmitted to the audience.
    Lesson learned.

    Let me clear up Mr Buell’s further confusions:

    There has been no ban on further performances of the work in Japan (see Mr Greenleaf’s review).
    The Japanese Government had no part in this initiative.
    A copy of the score is all we gave the Consul. The original is, I believe, in the Britten-Pears Library in Suffolk and not ours to give. It was, of course only a symbolic gesture.
    The remark Mr Buell refers to was not in the “letter” but in my speech from the stage. I said “The tension that this situation caused has not been resolved to this day” which is true.
    “We intend to resolve it tonight” in print sounds outrageously pompous and might be seen as a “solidly planted cue for applause”, but if Mr Buell had been present at the event he would have noticed my wry smile and heard the laughter that the line was intended to elicit.

    There was only one remark during my speech that caused applause: “At the end of the performance he will accept a copy of the score as recognition that, at last, wisdom and understanding prevail between our people” I wasn’t expecting it, but it was nice.

    It is fair to say that Britten’s status caused (and in sense forced) his exile to America. Many Conscientious Objectors, including W H Auden, were made to feel so uncomfortable in Britain – the authorities made it clear that they were not welcome – that to leave seemed to some the only option.

    Mr Buell ends: “If you think about it, Mr. Tsuji, the Consul General, wasn’t in any position to decline what was being presented to him, was he?” Actually, he did at first decline it, but as a result of the cordial and warm-hearted discussion at the Consulate, he changed his mind and willingly agreed. In his remarks at the concert he expressed his pleasure at being offered this opportunity to share his feelings on the matter. However, I suspect that if he had known what a torrent of words his simple and moving gesture was going to unleash, he might well have reconsidered the matter!

    Ben Zander
    Faculty New England Conservatory

    Comment by Ben Zander — March 12, 2010 at 8:42 am

  3. So with world peace in the bag, what comes next?

    Comment #2 only confirms my suspicions. It WAS a hustle.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 12, 2010 at 12:59 pm

  4. Surely the issue was settled when Britten himself conducted the NHK Symphony Orchestra in the Japanese premiere of the work on February 18, 1956. A radio broadcast of the concert followed the next day. The editors of Britten’s letters remark that this “constituted a satisfying tying up of a compositional and diplomatic loose end.” The rest is noise.

    Comment by Bill — March 27, 2010 at 9:36 pm

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