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8.553663 - BRITTEN: Cello Suites Nos. 1-3
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)
Suffolk-born, Suffolk-died, Britten studied in the 1930s under Frank Bridge and John Ireland. Among the most influential of his masters in absentia he counted Bach, Mozart and Schubert. From Purcell, he said, he learnt how to handle the English language in song. The twentieth century greats, from Berg and Mahler to Schoenberg and Stravinsky, touched him profoundly. Folklorist, scholar, performer, his gift was precocious, his creative imagination boundless, his inventive and technical facility consumately honed. Intensely dedicated and selflessly devoted, he was the complete private artist and public professional.
No elitist, Britten was an unpretentious communicator, a composer for all intellects. Deceptively simple, an absolute master of the economical gesture, he knew how to touch emotions and trigger reactions at many differing levels of impact. "I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships:' he said on receiving the first Aspen Award in 1964. "I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to 'enhance their lives' (to use Berenson's phrase). I do not write for posterity..." This did not prevent complex currents and contradictions from running through his work. The poised man of outwardly accessible manner was inwardly anything but. In 1949, four years after Peter Grimes (the rebirth of operatic conscience in England), Aaron Copland rated him "fairly difficult" to grasp, by comparison with Shostakovich ("very easy") or Walton ("quite approachable"). Shortly afterwards, introducing him to readers of The Record Guide (1951), Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor rightly recognised in his make-up an elusive "poetic charm ...covered, but not explained, by the word genius ...", yet conceded that his essential personality ("a deep nostalgia for the innocence of childhood, a mercurial sense of humour, and a passionate sympathy with the victims of prejudice or misunderstanding") was far from simple. "At the centre of his music," wrote Donald Mitchell in 1972, "there is an intensely solitary and private spirit, a troubled, sometimes even despairing visionary, an artist much haunted by nocturnal imagery, by sleep, by presentiments of mortality, a creator preternaturally aware of the destructive appetite (the ever-hungry beast in the jungle) that feeds on innocence, virtue and grace". Britten's lifework was an unsettling autobiography of illusory consonance, of cadences that left unbalmed the deep-seated psychological tensions and scars of his childhood and youth. He may have been a messenger of sounds seen to be sounded yet what he "cherished most" was "night and silence". He was "a man at odds with the world," Bernstein believed (1980). "It's strange, because on the surface Britten's music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming, but it's so much more than that. When you hear Britten's music, if you really hear it, not just listen to it superficially, you become aware of something very dark. There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain". For Robert Tear (to Humphrey Carpenter, 1991), "there was a great, huge abyss in his soul. That's my explanation of why the music becomes thinner and thinner as time passed. He got into the valley of the shadow of death and couldn't get out" When Britten died, only the London Daily Telegraph braved English reserve to give him his proper public due: "the truly towering talent of his age". A sentiment shared by his old friend and fellow-traveller Michael Tippett: "the most purely musical person I have ever met and I have ever known" (The Listener, 16th December 1976).
The decade from 1961 to 1971 was one of chamber music, song-cycles, folk settings, church parables, the War Requiem and the television opera Owen Wingrave. It was about the survival of the Aldeburgh Festival and the conversion, burning-down and re-building of the old barley Maltings at Snape. It was about Mahler and oriental exotica. And it was one of life-bonding new friendships with the dissident faction of the Soviet enemy face, Shostakovich, Richter, Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich. Rostropovich was a unique inspiration. It was for him that Britten wrote his Cello Sonata Op. 65 (1961), Cello Symphony, Op. 68 (1962-63), and three unaccompanied Cello Suites, Opp. 72 (November / December 1964), 80 (August 1967) and 87 (February 1971), as well as a set of cadenzas for the Haydn C major Concerto (1964), all, with the exception of the Cello Symphony, first heard at Aldeburgh.
The multi-movement Cello Suites, Britten's reply to Each, whose cycle he had heard Rostropovich play, are as strikingly personal in character as they are a direct response to the re-creative resource and technical pre-eminence of their dedicatée. William Mann considered the first "less harmless than it first sounds" (a familiar Britten paradox), with "discomforting harmonic implications" (London The Times, 2nd July 1965). "Sheer genius" admired Rostropovich of the Third (scribbled note, 22nd May 1972). "Less concerned with exploring the possibilities of the solo cello in the hands of a master and with depicting sinister nocturnal moods, [it] has nevertheless much to arrest and delight, notably a fascinating fugue, spidery and strong as spider's webs are, with a delicate, purposeful strength" was Ronald Crichton's reaction to the Second (Musical Times, August 1968).
The First Suite is in nine movements: three pairs of two each, prefaced and divided by three Cantos. The ingenously-wrought Fuga echoes baroque models; the Serenata suggests Debussy; the Bordone supports themes variously reminiscent of ideas from Britten's wartime Violin Concerto as well as the Elgar Cello Concerto. Old-world values return in the Fuga and final Ciaccona (on a five-bar ground) of the Second Suite. Atmospherically weighted, the Third, like the First also in nine movements (Introduzione, Marcia, Canto, Barcarolla, Dialogo, Fuga, Recitativo [fantastico], Moto perpetuo, Passacaglia), is a more emotionally charged statement, linked by three Tchaikovsky-arranged folksongs (The grey eagle, Autumn, Under the little apple tree) and the Orthodox Kontakion (or Hymn for the Dead). Britten enigmatically pre-echoes, varies and disperses these Russian tunes throughout the work before successively stating them in their original form at the end of the closing Passacaglia.
© 1996 Ateş Orga
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