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Benjamin Britten. The Complete Works for Oboe


Text of the booklet "Benjamin Britten. The Complete Works for Oboe"

«The real musicians are so few and far between, aren't they? Apart from the Bergs, Stravinskys, SchÚnbergs and Bridges one is a bit stumped for names, isn't one?"
This is what wrote the young Britten, a student at the Royal College of Music in London, the author of numerous songs and instrumental pieces, and most importantly one of those true musicians who are ‘few and far between’.
To this day many people in Russia remember his visits. Music teachers at the Moscow Conservatory even now reminisce about the concert at which Peter Pears sang Britten's songs accompanied by the composer himself.
Memoirs written by Britten's friends (for instance Imogen Holst) give an overall impression of a sociable, cheerful composer who truly enjoyed the creative process. In the words of those closest to him, he seemed to radiate music.
Britten was born in England in 1913 on the North Sea coast (in the county of Suffolk) and many of his compositions, from early songs to the late operas, are filled with depictions of the aquatic elements. His mother was the secretary of a choral society and music was often played or sung at home (his father even felt reluctant to buy a radio or record player, fearing that live music would no longer be heard in their family circle). One of the budding composer's first teachers was Frank Bridge, whom Britten idolised. Bridge was a forbidding character, and from the first few exercises he tried to instil perfectionism. One of his teaching techniques was to make Britten go to the far end of the room, play what the boy had composed and ask if that had been his initial intention.
After graduating from the Royal College of Music in London Britten moved to the USA and lived there for several years, but in 1942, during the war, he returned to his native land with his friend the brilliant singer Peter Pears. Both were immediately summoned to a military tribunal as pacifists who refused to join the army. They were acquitted. After the war Britten tried to live close to the sea and on the days there were no concerts (he performed as conductor and pianist) sat composing almost without interruption. He wrote so quickly that Imogen Holst who made fair copies of his scores had difficulty keeping up with him and was only saved by the composer's enthusiasm for observing sea birds through his binoculars, and in the evening he would take his dachshunds for a walk by the marshes. His acquaintances' reminiscences are so vivid and usually permeated with such warmth that we can easily imagine the radiant Britten and Peter Pears arranging a small festival for friends (among them Copland, Poulenc, Menuhin and Rostropovich), holding concerts all round the world and composing children's and 'real' operas, pieces and songs...
But there is no reason to remain silent on a circumstance that undoubtedly became a source of hidden torment and added a completely different nuance to the brighter side of his life: Britten was homosexual and moreover attracted to very young men. This problem can be easily read in his works. Lyricism almost disappears from his operas, there are few female parts and the main events primarily unfold around the relationship between an adult and a child. This child is usually a boy or youth and he often perishes, moreover in water, in the sea that the composer had continually observed from birth. Britten could not ignore such themes but was unable to write of them openly, so the preoccupations that haunted him are not directly visible in his works but nevertheless recognisable from a distance. These allusions are occasionally confided to words rather than music, hence he wrote many operas and songs and felt a need for an overall programme, for names, myths, parables and explanatory signs (he was a past master at concealment and subtext).
All this is directly related not only to his operas, but also to the chamber music and in particular the compositions with an oboe solo, as featured on this disc. Phantasy, Temporal Variations and Insect Pieces were written in the 1930s, while Metamorphoses after Ovid came much later, in 1951. In all these works Britten in one way or another resorts to lexical elucidation and only the pieces Grasshoper and Wasp are no more than elegant illustrations of insects.
But this is not the case with Temporal Variations, a title laden with meaning. At first we might assume that the author had in mind ‘worldly variations’. But there is a Commination in the cycle (which in the liturgy is defined as 'a recital of Divine threatenings against sinners') and a Chorale. Britten could hardly be thinking of 'worldly' music when he gave these titles to his pieces! Commination comes unexpected, amid marches and waltzes, as a denouncement, a severe memento mori.
Originally the composition was written for oboe and piano. In his diary Britten notes he was satisfied with his work, but after the premiere critics called this music 'clever' and it was never again performed in the composer's lifetime. Seen in retrospect there is a strong desire to replace the word 'clever' in old reviews with 'wise' – this seems closer to the truth.
The title Phantasy Quartet is also curious: the word 'fantasy' appears to be misspelt. The reason is as follows. In the early 20th century well-known businessman and chamber music enthusiast Walter Willson Cobbet was a great patron of the arts. As a true Englishman he was concerned with the development of national culture and wanted to revive interest in the viol fancies once popular in the reign of Elizabeth I. These fantasias were remarkable because they combined in one piece several completely separate episodes, each in its own tempo with its own time signature. Cobbet proposed a modern variant of this genre and called it 'phantasy'. In 1905 he established a prize to be awarded for the best composition in the 'phantasy' genre for string quartet. In 1907 the competition was for a piano trio and Frank Bridge won first prize – the same Bridge who would ask Britten if he had carried out his initial intention to the letter in years to come. Later Britten himself was awarded the prize while still studying at the Royal College of Music in London, for the Phantasy in F minor for String Quintet. Obviously he liked the 'phantasy' genre since he set to work on the next piece, Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings, almost immediately (the piece is included in this album).
The Phantasy Quartet, the work of an eighteen-year-old composer, was an opus that brought him fame abroad and stood out as one of his first great achievements. It is written precisely according to Cobbet's canons, but strictly speaking by the 1930s no one could have seriously believed this was a new form. The alternation of contrasting themes, however whimsical it may seem, could surprise nobody by that time. The Romantic composers had experimented lavishly with such ideas and the 'phantasy' could easily be taken for a rhapsody, rondo, poem, and so on. In Britten's time there were other ways to surprise the listener: a noisy dissonant avant-garde flourished and put an end to classical tonality, offering a vast range of new musical techniques. To all appearances Britten was not an advocate of radical harmonies but equally had no wish to repeat what had already gone before. In his Phantasy little remains of the familiar tonal system and he uses a particular method referred to as the 'technique of central harmony' in music theory: a random chord is selected and subsequently both melodies and harmonies are constructed from the chord's intervals.
A brisk march leads us into the 'phantasy' world and there is a temptation to describe it as pastoral, calling to mind the shepherd's piping and Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The Phantasy ends with this same march. The oboe remains one of the main participants Throughout, falling silent at the introduction of the intimate cantilena. At this point the oboe silently hearkens to the viola, not daring to converse with it, and only then does the instrument give a lengthy commentary.
Almost twenty years separate this piece from Metamorphoses after Ovid, but in the latter we see a composer whose artistic concepts are as clear as ever but probably reveal greater profundity. The technique acquires refined elegance and simplicity while retaining a certain logic. Despite the fact that these are only miniatures performed by one sole instrument and written specifically as a distraction from composing the opera Billy Budd, here more precisely than anywhere else Britten succeeds in finding his own inner voice: his favourite images, a hidden subtext, the calligraphic composer's hand...
The Metamorphoses was written for the Aldeburgh Festival, and the first performance was held under very unusual conditions at Thorpeness, a holiday village specially built to accommodate city dwellers on vacation. Both the performer (Joy Boughton, to whom the cycle is dedicated) and the audience sailed in boats on nearby Thorpeness Meare. Thus water provided the composer's main axis for reflection. As we know, water was one of Britten's favourite themes. But instead of the obvious barcarole he composed six pieces after Ovid's Metamorphoses – and how remarkably well chosen these episodes are! In the notes at the beginning of each miniature he briefly describes the subject matter.
In concealed or obvious form water indeed features in almost all these pieces: Syrinx was a naiad turned into a reed on the 'marshy banks of the River Ladon', Phaeton perishes in the River Padus and Narcissus by a stream, Arethusa turns into a sacred spring. Only Bacchus and Niobe have no connection with seas or rivers and these pieces come at the very heart of the cycle. The images stand in extreme contrast: the weeping woman who was served retribution for her pride, and the god of revelry with the medicine to cure all sorrows. Surely no mere chance that these two images are placed side by side! Moreover it is easy to pair the other pieces so that these pairs occur symmetrically around the central duo (the second miniature is juxtaposed to the fifth, the first to the sixth). Phaeton and Narcissus are both young men who meet a reckless end (Narcissus, incidentally, falls in love with a young boy, initially unaware this is his own reflection – Britten must have felt compelled to choose this theme!). Pan and Arethusa form another pair: She is unhappy, He is satisfied with his fate (seeing Syrinx changed into a reed, Pan captures the sound of the wind in his pipes and is comforted by his sweet art).
But the chosen subjects are quite horrific and vividly described by Ovid. As the fire emanating from Phaeton's chariot almost reduces the Earth to ashes it cries out in supplication: 'The heat seals my lips, see, my hair is on fire!' The description of how Niobe's fourteen children perish covers more than a page in poignant, passionate verse. But what of the music?
These are glorious, serene melodies. Scarcely broken diatonicism, soft arpeggios on the tones of calmly effulgent chords. Niobe weeps in D flat major, Pan and Arethusa enjoy the Greek modes (which even have the same tonic: Lydian D for Pan, Ionian D for Arethusa). Narcissus hearkens to the inversion of his theme, it reaches him as if from afar, giving the impression this refers not only to Narcissus but also to the nymph Echo whom he failed to notice and who therefore inflicted this strange love upon him. Echo also suffered an unenviable fate, pining for Narcissus until all that remained of her was 'voice and bones'.
Britten's Metamorphoses is devoid of harrowing tumult and written with some detachment (after all this is a myth, a tale of days long past). Inevitably we remember Debussy with his mythological subjects and love of woodwinds, his PrÎlude È l'aprÏs-midi d'un faune or the composition Syrinx for solo flute – written about the same Syrinx beloved by Pan. The aesthetics of Metamorphoses seem very close to this style, although the subtext gives a unique feel to the composition.
Obviously Britten saw particular significance in the complex relations between literary and musical images. Listening to his works with an oboe solo, we peer into the far distance in pursuit of vaguely defined allusions, seeing how one and the same miniature can be transformed in the light they shed, how the precise meaning eludes us and the never-ending metamorphosis acquires an entirely independent quality.

Anna Andrushkevich, translated by Patricia Donegan

Text of the booklet "Benjamin Britten. The Complete Works for Oboe"


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