Britten’s Unquiet Pasts
Sound and Memory in Post War Reconstruction
Music Since 1900 series
Cambridge: University Press, 2012
Hardcover. x+239 p. ISBN 978-0521194679. £60.00
Reviewed by Gilles Couderc
Université de Caen
Last year’s Britten Centenary generated and keeps generating a flurry of performances of the composer’s works internationally as well as the release of many books in English about him, among which the last volume of his exhaustively annotated selected letters, two full-length biographies of Britten (1913-1976) and several critical studies that deservedly confirm the British composer’s place in Music’s Hall of Fame. Among those essays, Heather Wiebe’s searching, most interesting and wide-ranging study sets out to examine Benjamin Britten’s place in the context of, and his engagement in the renewal of British culture of the 1940s and 1950 to which planners and critics contributed during and after WWII as they endeavoured to invent a new British identity while the country faced new Commonwealth immigration and the loss of its colonial empire, reconstruction and the setting up of the Welfare State, not to forget the increasing influence of American popular culture. As 1950s Britain was going through an identity crisis so was “serious” or “art” music, with its avant-garde divorcing from the past – remember France’s Pierre Boulez diktat on twelve-note serialism – and the culture of music-making that went with it. Wiebe’s study explores how music, especially Britten’s, dealt with issues of cultural continuity and loss, of community and its failure, of ritual and “the deep English past”.
Her narrative focuses on some of Britten’s works composed during the years after his return from the United States in 1942, with his popular Ceremony of Carols offering a legitimate first point of entry into the debate over cultural renewal as the piece engages with ritual, the sacred and the medieval past. She then follows his trajectory with such later works which, true to Britten’s creed of being “a musician for an occasion”, intersected more directly with national events celebrating reconstruction, renewal, memory and ritual: Billy Budd, the opera performed during the 1951 Festival of Britain; Gloriana, the opera submitted for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. She leaves off, and rightly so, after Britten‘s 1962 War Requiem, commissioned for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral which replaced the church that had been blitzed in November 1940. Indeed, the event proved to be the last key episode of post-war reconstruction and the last national event gathering so many British artists around one project, among whom John Piper or Graham Sutherland, long associated with Britten. Moreover, after the War Requiem until Owen Wingrave, the television opera of 1971, Britten seemed to shy away from such occasions and to remove himself to the secluded world of his Noh-inspired Church Parables. Yet his whole career offers the most striking example of sustained involvement with visions of cultural renewal. Wiebe sees the works quoted above as resulting from a double gesture to the future and to the past, seeking renewal in cultural memory, hence her title. Music, memory, magic and the sacred, she contends, cohere as an “immaterial”, the invisible ties that bind people together into communities and link the past with the present, and provide forms of enchantment to counterbalance the “material”, the forces of modernisation, collectivisation, secularisation, and technocracy that took hold of Britain in the postwar years. Renewal is generally built upon or over the ruins of the past. Musical gestures to the past beg the question of how to incorporate the remains of an age gone by, T.S. Eliot’s “heap of broken images” if you will, into “new” music and give them life and presence and Britten’s music continually begs that question.
Wiebe’s Introduction rapidly sketches the frenzy of planning for the new postwar British society and of state-projected visions of renewal that took over Britain as of 1942 – with such landmarks as the 1942 Beveridge Report, the 1944 Butler Education act and the setting up of the Arts Council in 1946 – only to peter out, almost as reconstruction began, in frustration and disappointment, affecting public life as well as literature and the arts. The late 1940s and 1950s, she recalls, have been described as marked by mediocrity, a regressive concern for a lost past, a reassertion of hierarchies and tradition, a culture of escapism and a mood of middle-class complacency only shattered by the Angry Young Men of the late 1950s. Yet recent scholarship has underlined the modernity of the 1950s, its celebration of progress and the intersection of art, mass culture and technology. Post-colonial approaches and expanded definitions of modernism have led to reassessing the uses of the past and modernism in mid-twentieth-century Britain, with Alexandra Harris’s “Romantic Moderns”, epitomised by the painter John Piper, Britten’s most long-term collaborator, associated to the new Coventry Cathedral, and Wiebe embraces those approaches.
Music played an important part in the English cultural renewal and seemed to offer the one exception to the widespread feeling of artistic stasis. Yet Britten, as queer, leftist and conchie has been seen as writing from the margin and has revealed contradictory impulses toward and away from postwar cultural ideals. This, she contends, indicates Britten’s encountering areas of uncertainty at the heart of those national cultural ideals more than the expression of his marginality. Wiebe’s take is to see him as the primary musical voice of an Establishment and to focus on the problems that Britten, like all the people involved in the postwar cultural renewal, encountered in his endeavour to forge a new musical culture for a new society. When dealing with the idea of the past, Wiebe rejects the scholarship of the Heritage Movement of the 1980s as heavily inflected by the Movement itself. More recent scholarship has analysed the modernising uses of the past in British culture at mid-century. Wiebe’s analyses, she points out, indicate neither a straightforward nostalgic nor optimistic use of the past as it cannot be subordinated to particular notions of national identity since it persists in a variety of different modes, the ruin, the artefact, the remnant, ghosts, ritual, memory and canon. Her aim is to examine how music negotiates the diversity of those modes and can work as memorial practice.
Wiebe deliberately turns to those of Britten’s works explicitly connected with the English past and national rituals and focuses on the ways he shared a vision for a renewed English culture and even inflected it. She chooses to show how Britten’s most dealt-with themes, the loss of innocence, violence, redemption and the opposition of the individual against the crowd, chimed in with contemporary debates, like the discussions around the 1957 Wolfenden Report on homosexuality and citizenship, the relationship of art to culture and of the artist to the community, and resonated in public life, in accordance with the composer’s creed to be useful to society, which criticism has long tended to downplay. Wiebe also underlines that while Britten engaged in the renewal of English cultural life, his aspirations were international in scope, and his interest in the English musical traditions went hand in hand with his curiosity for the European moderns – Berg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich – non-Western music, Indian modes and Balinese gamelan. The “Aldeburgh recluse”, an image which Britten partly fostered, especially after the worldwide success of his War Requiem, was an international traveller who invited foreign composers and performers to take part in his Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948, away from London, and an individual who engaged musically at a very fundamental level, involving people, especially the young, in music-making with educational works, thus articulating a vision of national culture that originated in postwar reforms.
Wiebe’s study unfolds in six chapters. Chapter One, “Music and Cultural Renewal”, takes stock of both Britten’s artistic ideals and how they chimed in with plans for an English musical culture. Apparently renouncing his early claims to musical cosmopolitanism, and while rejecting folksong as the foundation of national English music, Britten’s statements at the end of his American period, 1939-1942, indicate his turn to the idea of community and a vision of an English past. His letters of the time insist on his finally finding his English roots, which explains his decision to return, motivated by his reading of George Crabbe’s poetry, itself prompted by an essay of E.M. Forster’s. As Wiebe recalls, from 1942 on, Britten composed a body of works that focused on English poetry or were inspired by Purcell, then celebrated as the great English musical ancestor to be looked to, indicating his will to engage with the English musical heritage and to fight his own “Battle of Britain” – or “Battle of Britten”, as quipped music critic Ernest Newman – so as to carve a place for himself on the English musical scene. At the same time, he expressed a commitment to the idea of an English musical culture rooted in ideals of community and public rituals partly inspired by the early English Christian tradition. Mantra-like statements about the artist being of service to the community without renouncing artistic freedom and personal vision appear in his public utterances up to his Aspen Award speech of 1964. One may add that this ideal was partly fed by W.H. Auden, with whom Britten collaborated from 1935 to 1942 and whose influence remained paramount throughout Britten’s life, and Auden’s concept of parable-art and his early vision of the role of the artist.
Britten retained his vision of cultural renewal based on the local and the particular and on a participatory musical culture which echoes 1940s calls for renewal, in tune with the institutions of postwar planning. Wiebe recalls the role of the BBC in supporting high culture as well as that of CEMA, founded in 1940, taken over by John Maynard Keynes in 1942 and then mutating into his Arts Council in 1946, partially yoked to the ideals of Labour’s New Jerusalem. Music and musicians, all participating in the war effort, enjoyed a postwar boom with the Arts Council supporting four new music festivals that included Britten’s. While the main goal of CEMA and its successor was the improvement of national life through spreading high culture, their early decisions indicated tensions between localism and cosmopolitanism. The controversial decision to set up the new nationalised opera at Covent Garden indicated the Council’s commitment to a pre-war, elite-cosmopolitan model opposed to the popular-national one of Sadler’s Wells, favoured by Britten, while his own touring opera company, the English Opera Group, founded in 1947, received scant support from the Council. In the same vein, the BBC’s Third Programme, set up in 1946, broadcast plays, talks and music to a limited audience and was soon criticised for being too highbrow and for isolating high art from light content. Like Covent Garden, the Programme proved to be a display of British cultural prestige obliquely aimed at other nations. Yet the Council fostered regional activity and participatory models of cultural life, linking arts and leisure with the Arts Centres Movement, which eventually proved unmanageable and unrealistic.
Constructing an English musical culture founded on European art-music was soon seen as relying on an “industry” feeding an audience of “consumers”, especially by William Glock, soon-to-be the BBC’s Controller of Music, for whom new music and early, pre-1700 music offered a valid alternative, as early music was functional, often religious and the fruit of an indigenous musical tradition. Glock also wanted more new English music and Britten soon became the white hope for a new musical culture that could be broadly-shared yet less consumption-oriented. It is in the local and the particular, Wiebe argues, that Britten’s idea of a public musical culture was most fully realised, with such works as Rejoice the Lamb and Saint Nicolas. Both were occasional pieces, written one for a church, the other for a school, both for the anniversary of those local institutions, both looking to an English cultural past and religious tradition, and both offered resistance to a mode of consumption in mass and high culture alike with ties to the past and a function in public life. Contrary to T.S. Eliot, Britten seemed to believe that culture could really be constructed and planned. One model that he could follow to produce the magic that could bind together what he called “his holy trinity of composer, performer and listener”, and revive a lost past, Wiebe argues, was that of verse drama and of the literary and theatrical movements of the first half of the century, with Yeats, Eliot and Pound, fascinated by the coordinated power of music and ritual to revivify lost worlds. Those themes continued to be explored in the late 1950s, as with Iris Murdoch’s 1958 The Bell which posits music and ritual as endowed with the ability to revive the past, community and the sacred. This, she contends, helps to understand Britten’s concerns with redemption, the early English Christian tradition, and the performance of religious ritual in a secular society. On the other hand, Kingsley Amis’s 1954 Lucky Jim shows performing madrigals and playing the recorder as stultifying Establishment intellectual pursuits and vacuously nostalgic preoccupations with the past. For Wiebe, Murdoch’s Bell and Amis’s Lucky Jim stand as the two horns of the dilemma that Britten faced when composing. Accordingly, Wiebe chooses to examine whether his music is endowed with Murdoch‘s transformative power of renewal or Amis’s empty escapism.
Chapter Two “Today on earth the angels sing : Carols in wartime” tackles Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, drafted in 1942 on the boat home and completed in 1943. A surprising work, as carols recall the folksong movement denounced by Britten, with Vaughan Williams, one of Britten’s pet peeves, as the grand caroller, it indicates a self-conscious turn away from his earlier claims of cosmopolitanism and technical virtuosity towards explicitly English cultural and musical traditions and to local practices of amateur-music making. His friend the art critic Edward Sackville-West, who wrote the notes for the 1944 Decca recording, praises the Ceremony’s combination of cleverness and plainness and connected it with an artistic trend that was taking shape in the UK in the 1940s, embracing precision and intellectualism, and his language recalls the painter John Piper’s, committed to the integration of art and daily life. The piece may appear disconnected from the harsh realities of wartime but for Wiebe it resonates with what Stephen Spender described as “the religious mood of the war” and addresses issues of cultural citizenship figuring strongly in a growing discourse of the medieval carol from the interwar period through the 1950s
Emerging in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as an expression of popular religiosity, almost extinct by the late sixteenth century thanks to the kill-joy Puritans, the carol was revived in the mid-1800s, and by the late 1920s Anglo-Catholic circles set out to reform the social practice of carol singing, reasserting its ability to bridge the gap between high and low culture, sacred and secular, past and present, the very conditions needed to build a shared improving culture. In the early 1900s two versions of the carol were firmly established. The first, with the Festival of Carols set up in 1918 at King’s College, Cambridge, became the standard for listeners in Britain and abroad when it was broadcast by the BBC in 1928, the year when the first edition of the Oxford Book of Carols was released, soon to be the standard source of carols. Britten’s Ceremony shares the OBC’s vision of the carol as mediator between high and popular culture while its title and ritual looks to the Cambridge Festival, which became a national tradition, a sign of Englishness and positioned the Church of England as an institution of national memory, connecting the present with the medieval past through ritual. During the Second World War the Carol Festival rose to becoming a myth, culminating in 1954 with its broadcast to the seven countries of the European Broadcasting Union, a salute to that most successful of Britain’s “invented traditions”, which brought together a wide spectrum of people in Britain and abroad.
Ceremony was first performed in 1943 under the aegis of CEMA at the National Gallery, the site of Myra Hess’s famed free wartime concerts, in which Britten and his companion Pears participated. It was seen as highbrow, elevating the carol to an art form, thus engaging in a debate about the aesthetics of the carol initiated in 1928 by the editor of the OBC, who wanted to restore its hybrid character, linking high and popular culture, which was then characterised as “modern” and thus embodying in a small way the new society contemplated by the social engineers of the 1940s. The carol brought together the exalted and the mundane and thematised, Wiebe argues, the incarnational tradition, linking the spiritual and the earthily physical. Britten’s ordering of his texts leads to a meditation on the meaning of the nativity itself and the mystery of kenosis and insists on describing the sacred in human terms and this reverberates in the music. Effects of distance and presence, she argues, are initiated by the framing plainchant procession and recession and their approaching and receding voices. For her, Britten’s later choice of rougher, chesty boys’ voices instead of the angelic and ethereal sound of English cathedral voices seems linked to those incarnational aesthetics, bringing art down to earth as it were, adumbrating Passion within Nativity though the symbolism of the nightingale in the treble solo “That yongë child” and with the tolling-bell effect of the harp’s harmonics in the Interlude that reworks the Procession chant, furthering the idea of the presence of the sacred in the physical world, bringing the real and the ideal in one transformative movement, thus speaking strongly to the hopes for renewal in the bomb-scarred London of 1942.
Chapter Three, “Realising Purcell”, examines Britten’s intense relationship with Purcell, with whom composers of his generation, like Tippett and Luytens, were deeply engaged. Britten’s music is often saturated with Purcell but Wiebe sees his realisations, made to provide his companion Pears with English songs for his recitals, as the expression of private feelings in the public sphere as Britten chose the less familiar in Purcell’s output, concerned with issues of anxiety and despair, and as they are self-consciously exclusive. She suggests they might be a tool of self-legitimisation and cultural citizenship, allowing Britten, the “respectable homosexual citizen” to find his public place in a Wolfenden Report age and the composer to engage with an estranged past where otherness could find an echo. She then discusses Britten’s and Alfred Deller’s contribution to the postwar Purcell revival, with Deller reviving the countertenor voice, then so outlandish a voice as to generate anxieties about genre and Deller’s masculinity. Britten and Tippett both explored Purcell, she recalls, as he offered a sense of continuity between past and present, a model of text-setting and so the possibility of an indigenous English opera. For Britten he was also an international composer on par with Schubert, Mozart, Fauré and Schumann. Postwar interest in Purcell culminated with the 1946 revival of his Fairy Queen at Covent Garden to mark the opening of its first opera season, allowing the Garden to employ British voices and Ninette de Valois’s renowned ballet company, newly incorporated to the Garden. Purcell’s semi-opera proved a real challenge to be revived for modern audiences and it was received at best as highbrow pantomime by its critics and as edifying entertainment, educating its spectators in opera, by its supporters.
Deller, whose biography widely conveys anxiety about the femininity of his voice, approved of its being described as inhumanly pure, unworldly, removed from the familiar and expressing otherness. Britten shared this sense of Purcell’s otherness and strangeness in a different way as can be seen from his fondness for Purcell’s “mad songs” and, surprisingly, for his devotional songs, as if Purcell were a site for the expression of Britten’s excessive feelings, shame and dereliction, with Britten writing himself into the musical past through his realisations. His tendency to maximise the physicality of Purcell’s music was a way to redirect it to more immediate concerns as Wiebe explains in her musical analysis of Britten’s Purcell-inspired Donne Sonnets of 1945 and Canticle III, Still falls the rain of 1955. The Donne Sonnets were composed two weeks after Britten had accompanied Yehudi Menuhin in a series of concerts given to the survivors of the Belsen-Bergen concentration camp in July 1945, and implicitly express Britten’s outrage at such suffering, especially through the use of long melismas, to which, Wiebe finds, Francis Bacon’s paintings of the same period or the “New Apocalyptic” poets offer telling analogies. The form of the Canticles derives from Purcell’s Divine Hymns, and Canticle III, based on a poem by Edith Sitwell, meditates on the London Blitz by way of the Crucifixion, as Sitwell ends her poem with a quotation from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The canticle was written in memory of Noel Mewton-Wood, a young pianist friend of Britten’s who committed suicide on the death of his male partner, thus bringing together a wartime episode, a Christian message and private tragedy. Both works use a musical and literary past and explore feeling of grief and shame and belong to the devotional closet. Britten’s realisations were angrily received as critics resented his appropriation of Purcell since some wished his music to remain as pure and neutral as Deller’s voice but Wiebe argues that those realisations place Britten along with figures of musical eccentricity such as Wanda Landowska, Deller himself and Glenn Gould, who made the past the home of their strangeness.
As a starting point, Chapter Four, “Gloriana and the New Elizabethans” takes A.S. Byatt’s Virgin in the Garden’s distanced perspective on Elizabeth II’s Coronation which the novelist considers as a quest to remain in touch with history through reviving the past, condemned to failure, the critical failure that met Britten’s Gloriana when first performed at the Garden as part of the Coronation Gala. Critics were particularly bitter and hostile and reacted to what they saw as Britten’s exalted status in British music induced by the release of a laudatory collection of essays assessing the barely-forty composer’s music. Far from contributing to the Coronation’s fantasy of Elizabethan renewal the opera simply debunked it with the dewigging of the capricious aging queen in Act III and the Freudian emphasis on her conflicting identities, derived from Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, one of the sources for William Plomer’s libretto. Wiebe suggests that the early 1950s, with the Tories back in power, saw a revival of profound social conservatism exemplified with the “politics of consensus”, and that Gloriana, invoking the rhetorics of New Elizabethanism, simultaneously suggested competing constructions of Englishness based on aggression and historical memory, which, one may say, was a typically familiar Britten strategy.
1950s postwar Britain was in sore need of Elizabethan renewal, what with foul weather, continued rationing, Cold War tensions, New Commonwealth immigration and a crippling foreign debt. The Coronation provided the perfect opportunity to assert Britain’s youthfulness and modernity rooted in the national past in the face of hardship and change. The yoking of modernity and tradition was exemplified by its unprecedented exploitation by the media, especially the famed TV broadcast, emblematic of the New Elizabethans’ take of a “return to the future”. They meant to address Cold War British identity in imperial decline with military achievements, exploration and the flowering of the arts, expounded by A.L. Rowse in his 1955 An Elizabethan Garland, which voiced anxieties about a levelling, uniformising modern democratic culture. For the Coronation composers could draw on the interwar Tudor revival of Vaughan Williams and Holst but their vision was essentially pastoral and inspired by William Morris’s socialism, clashing with the reality of the age of Elizabeth I, aggressively military and individualistic. The Arts Council’s brief of assisting the arts without propagating official art also clashed with the essentially affirmative vision of the New Elizabethans. It commissioned A Garland for the Queen, a collation of ten madrigals, modelled on the Elizabethan Triumphs of Oriana, to which poets and composers would collaborate in celebration of the new queen as harbinger of renewal, which Britten, composing Gloriana, turned down. Even a production of Berg’s Wozzeck at the Garden was recruited as a token of New Elizabethan adventurousness and cultural eclecticism.
Britten’s Gloriana was both partly New Elizabethan fish and Bergian fowl, bearing marks of the Coronation’s multiple and conflicting demands. Premiering a new opera for the Gala could be seen as a sign of cultural renewal and the opera contains scenes of celebration of the Queen, like the Act II Masque of Time and Concord, close enough to the Arts Council’s projected Garland, in tune with the laudatory vein demanded by the occasion and New Elizabethanism. But their pageantry, on which Britten deliberately insisted, fits uneasily in the work’s dramatic progress and general tone. Celebration is partly disrupted by episodic returns of Britten’s 1930s grotesque and satiric mode, such as the Queen’s Burlesque of Act II, and by the intrusive themes of ill-fated political and military ambition. The lack of heroic masculinity associated with Elizabeth I’s Golden Age – and, one may add, Britten’s refusal to have instruments double his vocal lines à la Puccini – generated veiled attacks on Britten’s, Pears’s and Plomer’s homosexuality. Yet one episode does in a way pertain to New Elizabethanism, the Ensemble of Reconciliation that concludes the first scene of Act I, when the Queen first appears. But she upbraids Mountjoy and Essex in deep quarrel with down-to-earth language and a simplicity of musical tone whose gentle pastoral mood suggests to Wiebe a return to a more domestic concept of the nation associated with “Little England” than the imperial-heroic vision of the New Elizabethans. Moreover, according to Wiebe, the “Green leaves” chorus that concludes the Ensemble, associated on two occasions with the harmony of the nation under the Queen, acquires ghostly overtones when heard offstage, especially in the opera’s final scene when the Queen finally appears as a ghost, suggesting this harmony belongs to a distant irretrievable past. In that finale, Essex’s Second Lute Song “Happy were we” also plays a major role, as in other significant moments. It appears in Act I and its initial purpose is to enable escape from the cares of state. The text of the song, written by the historical Essex himself, muses on a long departed boyhood and an English pastoral idyll, characterised by absence itself. Its musical style belongs to that historical Elizabethan time as Wiebe deems it to be inspired by Dowland, whom Britten had tackled in his 1950 Lachrymae for viola and piano, where the Dowland song “If my complaints” appears as if dimly remembered, suggesting again the impossibility to retrieve the past. In place of the renewal of the nation, Britten then seemed to offer “a gesture of refusal”. In the last analysis, Gloriana articulates the sense of loss hovering around the edges of New Elizabethanism, pointing to the wars and hardships common to both eras. Yet the opera’s failure was followed by a flurry of British operas, with the 1954-1955 Garden opera season seen as English opera’s annus mirabilis. If Britten later disengaged from the Garden and grand opera, he kept pursuing other modes of musically engaging with society, very different from the ideals of the Garden and true to his own, constructing renewal as medieval rather than Elizabethan, religious rather than secular, local rather than metropolitan and familiar rather than official, all apparent in his 1958 Noye’s Fludde.
Chapter Five tackles Britten’s setting of a fragment of the Chester Mystery Plays which Wiebe sees as one of the most clearly celebratory of his works. Premiered in Orford Church as part of the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival, it called on ritual, childhood, the past, the everyday and the local with school children, monitored by few adults, as performers, and the audience as congregation requested to sing well-known hymns at strategic moments. It embodied the Aldeburgh renewal project, to revive local cultural life through participatory involvement with tradition, as well as the inter-class cooperation included in the New Jerusalem ideals. It looked at the idea of a medieval shared culture meant to educate and entertain and at the practices of an English religious tradition linked to a central theme of renewal after destruction.
Noye suggests the same issues as the Mysteries revived in the twentieth century, shared religious faith and the sense of an organic community. As an educational work, Noye belongs to an established vein in Britten’s production of works composed for and performed by children, influenced by the highly moral examples of Brecht’s Jasager and Copland’s Second Hurricane, both known by Britten and both relying on community, theatre, ritual, and participation as an educational tool. But Noye is not concerned with moral rectitude but by joyful renewal through an ostensibly shared culture. The piece reflects the British revival of Mystery plays that culminated in 1950s England and the renewed interest of the Church for the arts, with the Church seen by Sackville-West as an alternative to the State as patron of the arts. Wiebe sketches the revival of the Mystery Plays, from Canterbury’s George Bell calling for a return of drama to the Church to the founding of the triennial York Festival in 1951 and the involvement of E. Martin Browne in the revival, leading to a brief period when religious verse drama was performed in London’s West End theatres to surprisingly large audiences, with a body of religious plays then regularly performed in state and private schools well into the mid-1950s. Some of the earliest verse dramas were collaborations between Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, who often used music to recover the incantatory language of poetry as “sounded language”, and music was central to verse drama. It became a way of accessing the past while suggesting it could never be completely recovered. Britten’s first professional experiences were within the versa drama movement of the 1930s and, one may add, he adhered to its tenets since he recruited poets Montagu Slater, Ronald Duncan and William Plomer when looking for opera librettists.
Wiebe then describes how religious ritual was performed at York, a landmark in the Mystery Play revival, and one of the most successful arts events in the Festival of Britain while it fitted uneasily in the ethos of the Festival as, like most of the twenty-three Festival Arts Centres, it sponsored, it looked at religion and the past instead of the future, science and technology. The Church of England was granted a major place in the Festival’s vision of Britain, with Christian faith posited as part of the nation’s history and this reflected on the performances of religious drama, posing an ideal of local and national community rooted in a lost Christian past, with faith as a social bond and the sacred as immediate and accessible. Yet the Mystery plays, especially at York and Coventry, seemed embedded in a petrified past and its ruins, those of St Mary’s Abbey for the former and those of the blitzed city for the other, begging the question of the place of faith in those festivals and in 1950s Britain. One telling indicator Wiebe uses among others is Seebohm Rowntree’s and G. R. Lavers’s 1951 English Life and Leisure, which laid bare the decline of religious practice while enthusing over the nation’s highly spiritual concerns for the good and the beautiful, based on Christian principles, but also lamenting their future demise without Christian faith to support them and putting forward the idea of vestigial or residual faith. It has been argued that in 1950s Britain there still was a national public culture of Christianity, with churches looked on as local culture centres. For Wiebe the Festival of Britain’s brief reveals an insistence on the continuing relevance of the Christian tradition as counterweight to the new Welfare State’s emphasis of material progress, as if that tradition kept exerting an almost magical fascination. Noye shows a similar fascination while suggesting how to restore life to the relics of religious practice and how to use them in a collaborative performance of cultural citizenship.
In their original production Britten and director Colin Graham attempted to suggest the collapse of medieval faith and the postulated simplicity of Suffolk school children, music bridging the gap between past and present, thus resurrecting the former’s remnants with new life as the clockwork mechanism of the staging, worked by the children, was laid bare for all to see. While the text is markedly archaic, the music happily combines as many styles, periods, practices and moods as there are colours in God’s rainbow, the plainsong Kyrie of Noye’s children counterbalanced by the familiar hymns which belong to different eras of the Protestant tradition. Yet, if they appeal to the ordinary and the quotidian and provide points of reference and stability, their disconcerting – almost romp-like – harmonic and rhythmic setting conveys a sense of estrangement. They provide congregation participation and appeal to memory and childhood as childhood remembered for an audience of adults, associated to a sense of wonder, seen by some like D.H. Lawrence as the natural religious sense. The final hymn, Addison’s “The spacious firmament in high”, set to the more inclusive, stolid and easier-to-sing Tallis’s Canon, progressively leads the entire cast and congregation into one singing procession. The hymn speaks of the continued enchantment of the physical world by the presence of the divine despite scientific progress and its final stanzas are suddenly submerged by Balinese gamelan effects, imbuing the familiar hymn with a magical quality. But for Wiebe, resorting to childhood, the pre-modern and the exotic seems to go hand in hand with imagining a narrowly-defined vision of the English cultural past that eschews more urgent concern like the contemporary “white” Notting Hill riots, belying Britten’s vision of a community where faith was rendered as democratic culture available to all through education and participation.
Wiebe contrasts Noye with two works that Britten saw while he was working on his first Church Parable, Curlew River of 1964, and to which Britten very negatively responded. Noah Greenberg’s 1958 production of The Play of Daniel, adapted for modern audiences a thirteenth-century liturgical drama and Stravinsky’s 1962 dance work, The Flood, was inspired by the same Mystery play as Noye, The former, first produced in New York Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters aimed at historical authenticity with its use of a Latin text and of medieval instruments while conveying the difficulty of reclaiming the past, the medieval providing an imagination-provoking exoticism. The second located itself everywhere and nowhere with its insistence that the biblical narrative was part of a universal body of myths rather than part of a specific cultural tradition. Curlew River, produced in the same church with the same director as Noye, adapted a Japanese Noh play, Sumidagawa, to a specifically East Anglian setting and Christian context, as a play within the play performed by pre-Conquest monks, Gregorian chant replacing the familiar church hymns and precluding audience participation, with gamelan-inspired music and heterophony instead of the simple, familiar, music of Noye couched in the Western tradition. Like Stravinsky’s Flood, Curlew River emphasized the stylised, the abstract and the universal, with the medieval as exotic rather than domestic, with redemption seen as purely individual rather than corporate, what also characterises his War Requiem.
The work that made and still makes Britten internationally known, along his Peter Grimes, is dealt with in Wiebe’s last chapter, “Ghosts in the ruins : The War Requiem at Coventry”. It starts with a visit of the city’s new cathedral, built some feet close by the ruins of the blitzed one, setting the tone for, and the theme of, the chapter, and of the War Requiem itself. Indeed if on entering the new building one faces the main altar, at the end of a long trajectory leading from darkness to light, one sees Graham Sutherland’s monumental tapestry of “Christ in majesty” which recalls Byzantine icons. If one turns around, one faces the main front’s huge glass screen, etched with ghostly figures of saints and angels, through which the ghost of the former cathedral can be seen, a monument to the insanity of war on innocence, cultural tradition and basic human values. Plans for rebuilding the church as a symbol of reconciliation and redemption were immediately thought of after the November air raid but the construction of the new building only began in 1954 and was imbued by the rhetoric of renewal that had pervaded 1950s postwar reconstruction, Cold War threats giving them renewed relevance. The church was built as a monument to the losses of the Second World War, as a statement of renewal and of the Church’s integration in society and the arts. Its grandiose consecration was as massive a media event as the Coronation, with a two-week arts festival whose zenith was to be the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem, unique on several points. Commissioned by the Festival committee, its dramaturgy was based on Wilfred Owen’s poems commenting the traditional Mass of the Dead and on the three soloists belonging to the nations involved in the Second World War. Unique too, were its advance publicity, its broadcast on BBC’s generalist Home Service and on Eurovision, and the best-selling Decca recording it generated.
The Coventry commission offered Britten the long-delayed and often-abandoned opportunity to publicly express his pacifism while many of his operas and of the works discussed before expressed a personal horror of war and violence. Like Coventry Cathedral, the Requiem was rooted in the language of commemoration and the pan-European tradition of choral masses, recalling war and destruction yet containing them within a musical and religious tradition. As a monument with a fundamentally anti-war message, it had to avoid the sanctification of violent death and to address the specificity of the Second World War. In deciding to commemorate the World War II soldier, Wiebe argues, it set aside the Holocaust and Hiroshima but addressed a certain amnesia of collective remembrance after 1945, hence its turning to the methods and material of the previous war. Britten’s challenge was to paint war’s immediacy and violence and its personal reality. The Requiem’s structure sets out the basic opposition between the Latin Requiem Mass, carried by the massive forces of chorus and symphony orchestra which express the conventions of public mourning, the boys’ choir accompanied by the organ suggesting liturgical plainchant and the intimate setting of Owen’s grittily realistic poems sung by a tenor and a baritone soloist supported by the chamber orchestra, two dead soldiers whose voices constantly intrude on the church ritual with their description of physical violence and with their protest. Critics have seen in this simple structure the tensions between Owen’s individual protest against institutional complacency represented by the Mass and his own Christian beliefs. Britten’s choice of poems does indeed voice violent criticism of the Church as an exploitative patriarchal system which sends boys to their deaths and sanctifies it as Christ-like sacrifice, a profoundly anti-Christian attitude. It also indicts the State as agent of violence and suffering. This challenges the Mass as an empty act of faith as it attacks the mechanisms of liturgy and ritual.
As Wiebe recalls, critics have been weary of the blatantly theatrical character of the chorus-orchestra sections of the work, similar to canonical requiems, Berlioz’s or Verdi’s. This, she says, belongs to a long-standing acceptation of musical monumentality as theatrical, hence superficial, but it can be seen as Britten’s attempt to find a public style to his personal language. Wiebe then looks at the notion of “monument” and at monuments as war memorials, whose smooth, regular solidity and ability to carry memory in the future may sometimes create an amnesia effect which so disturbed Walter Benjamin, who privileged “an endless repetitive ‘play’ of mourning”. Before dealing with Britten’s use of the materiality of sound and the ephemerality of musical performance to preserve traces of historical presence, Wiebe turns to the war and postwar debate about the preservation of the blitzed churches around Coventry as ruins, which was of urgent concern to those involved in reconstruction. Those ruins, it was felt should be used as memorials and tangible fragments of past trauma, and not as “Mahmal” or “monument of admonition”, as was long the case of the Dresden Frauenkirche. The plan to integrate the ruins of the old cathedral within the new cathedral precinct meant they should serve as evocative remnants of the past. Britten’s Requiem aimed at the preservation of wartime experience which, she says, intrudes under the smooth surface of the Mass with a display of unassimilable remaindered ghosts: the soldiers’ for one, the remote sound of the boys’ liturgical choir, evocative of an early Christian past, and above all the emblematically disturbing tritone that refuses to be resolved until the very last bar of three of the Requiem’s a capella sections. Wiebe then explores the areas where liturgy is directly or implicitly indicted by Owen and Britten, like the ambiguous close of the opening Requiem Aeternam section or the Lacrymosa, where the soprano’s theatrical sobbing is interrupted by one soldier’s expression of faint hope, loss and mourning. Wiebe then points out that the ghosts’ warning in the Libera me/ “Strange meeting” section is finally heard as an echo of the epigraph chosen by Britten to open his work “My subject is war and the pity of war…All a poet can do today is warn” through the incompletely silent voices which the Requiem tries hard to lay to rest. The resting of those ghosts is the goal of the work and seems momentarily achieved with the boys’ “In paradisum” that follows, mingling with the soldiers’ “Let us sleep now”, soon relayed by the chorus and soprano, in a rare moment of unity of the three groups. But the latter’s statement is once again interrupted by the bells’ tritone, indicating that the past and the sacred still haunt the present and the human.
Critics have commented that Britten’s music after the Requiem went through a period of withdrawal, speaking, Wiebe says, to the end of a cultural vision of the integration of art and public life in 1960s Britain, with Coventry Cathedral as its emblem. She sees the Requiem as Britten’s most ambitious attempt to integrate art and national culture and connect individual voices to a notion of cultural citizenship. While it attempted to revive the past, it revealed anxieties about the loss involved in the process of keeping cultural memory alive. Its commercial success as a best-selling recording also indicated its absorption as a commodity in the music industry of mass culture which Britten had long indicted, explaining perhaps his strange condemnation of recordings in his Aspen Award speech as mechanically repetitive and precluding his cherished notion of ritual, when he himself had long profited from that industry as a way of expanding his musical horizons as a teenager and of earning a living as an adult. She sees the Requiem as the zenith and end of Britten’s public voice, and if later works would call on ritual and community, they would rarely play a part in the transformation of public culture as they had before. That moment of possibility and Britten’s moment had both passed.
Wiebe’s study will convince those who still think that art is removed from history and political realities that it is on the contrary deeply linked to a cultural, historical and political context and she works well towards reviving the landscape in which Britten evolved and was involved as she calls on a vast array of sources and draws stimulating links between the arts, literature and politics, offering a partial shortcut through postwar British cultural history. In the process she draws a portrait of Britten removed from the popular notion of those who see contemporary “serious” music composers as effete creatures cooped up in their ivory tower, a notion that Britten’s life and involvement with the daily realities of being a composer, the director and manager of a touring opera group and then of a music festival, a conductor and a performer will soon dispel. While it offers a partial view of Britten’s life and works, Wiebe’s study’s includes and covers enough material and offers enough astute, sensitive and convincing insights to happily complement the two biographies that came out for the Britten Centenary, especially Paul Kildea’s, subtitled A Life in the Twentieth Century.
Cercles © 2014
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