“…It is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings.” So said Benjamin Britten in a 1964 speech accepting the Aspen Award, by which time he was regarded as the greatest English composer since Purcell and one of the greatest of any nationality in his century. Out of context the quote invites questions, interpretations, and challenges (Should communicating with a wide audience be the composer’s priority? What happens when the desire for understanding is at odds with his desire for expression?). Britten goes on to elaborate, outlining two obstacles to artistry that come from taking this principle too far: “true proletarian music” and “avant-garde tricks.” Britten says the composer should follow above all his own “private and personal conscience” while taking into account the audience.
The issues Britten raises are particularly relevant to classical music written in the 20th century, when the musical language of the previous 300 years (at the very least) was going through a radical upheaval, leading to a wonderful diversity of music but also in many instances creating rifts between composers and their audiences. That Britten described the creative process as he did says something about his own music, which is itself a balancing act between clarity of line with harmonic warmth reminiscent of Mozart, Schubert, and Purcell and an acidic emotional intensity derived from Schoenberg and Berg, not to mention Bartok and Stravinsky. The conflict between opposites—sweetness and harshness, individual and society—are genuine strengths of Britten’s music, music that continues to speak to new performers and audiences.
Boston-area listeners will be able to hear selections from Britten’s chamber music on Sunday, September 21st, in the first of a series of monthly chamber concerts to be held in Inman Square, Cambridge. Composer Focus will present the music of 20th– and 21st-century composers, one on each concert. As a tribute to Britten’s passion for vocal music (he wrote 16 operas), the concert will begin with his song cycle On This Island, sung by mezzo Wendy Parker. The early work shows a diversity of influences, jazz chords mixing with Baroque and Romantic gestures. Two more early works, an Elegy for solo viola (written when Britten was 16) and a charming Waltz for violin and piano, demonstrate his affinity for string instruments that would later culminate in his three string quartets and three suites for solo cello (the Chaconne from no. 2 will be also be performed). A solo piano work, his Variations, has a sparer and more introspective style, characteristic of his later work. Finally, the String Quartet no. 2, one of Britten’s greatest accomplishments in chamber music, finishes the concert. Written at the close of World War II and in tribute to Purcell, it is striking in its emotional and structural clarity and range of drama (the third and final movement is a large 21-variation passacaglia).
All Composer Focus concerts will be held on the 3rd Sunday of the month, September to May, at 7pm at the Lilypad in Inman Square. Intimate, the Lilypad is home venue to many area musicians and artists; it serves wine and craft beer and admission is $10 at the door. There will be one intermission and the concert will end by 8:30pm. Composers represented in the following months include Bartok, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Part, Ligeti, Adams, Glass, and Rouse. Clearly the series covers a variety of 20th-century classical styles.
Performers at the Britten concert will be violinists Angel Valchinov and Abby Swidler, violist Chen Lin, the writer on cello, pianist Paul Jacobs, and Parker. All of us are graduates of area conservatories, experienced in chamber music and dedicated to creating vital performances of the great 20th-century repertoire. For further details please see here and here.