Thursday, January 10, 2013

Benjamin Britten - Musician and Man

In a sense, Benjamin Britten was a composer three times over: the genius who wrote the notes, the pianist who played as only a composer can play, aware of the music's structure and conjuring up the sound of the orchestra, and the conductor making music sound as though the ink were still dry. From the young man's hair-breadth daring brilliance through all the operas, songs of all kinds and instrumental pieces through to the last delicate look backs in tenderness. He could make magic at the keyboard in such a way as to cause Gerald Moore declare that he was the best accompanist there was. His playing at those operatic programmes where his Verdi was so compelling or the time when he played the opening bar's eight repeated chord of C minor of Fauré's Elégie before Fournier entered made one hold one's breath in sheer wonder. As a conductor he could raise a storm in The Hebrides that was shatteringly dramatic whilst his Mozart G minor Symphony was tragic in the extreme (with all possible repeats it took nearly three-quarters of an hour – heavenly length). 

Ben was a competitive chap: he wanted to be the best, he was modest in a way but sought to be the best. Generally, he was the best, even running the Aldeburgh Festival (how many other administrators could read a balance sheet as well as an orchestral score?) He was a good driver of fast cars (a sparky Jensen previous to a more sedate Rolls), he played tennis well with a vicious swerving serve that could only be received in the netting, he played croquet and even Happy Families (although Shostakovich won on his Christmas visit to Aldeburgh – I think Ben must have allowed his guest to win). On the other hand Ben admired people who did things as well as himself, in different fields mind you, as witness his duets with Richter or Rostropovich, Vishnievskaya. There has never in musical history been a love-match that produced so much music as Ben wrote for Peter Pears, at least eight song cycles and ten operas – from Grimes in 1945 to Death in Venice in 1973. The preponderance of subject matter relating to the corruption of innocence and sympathy for the oppressed must have had a lot to do with Ben's own experience, mainly because he was a homosexual. It may have been that he was always looking back to his childhood years.  

Britten believed his task was to write music for the living, to be useful to his fellow beings. Like Mozart, most of his music was composed with certain voices or instrumentalist in mind. he tailored the notes for the singers, for example, knowing which were the best ones wide, intervals or narrow, which parts of the voice 'spoke' best, was the singer better at quick music or slow; all the individually of the original singer is so much encapsulated in music that it amounts almost to a portrait of their particular voice. The music composed especially for Fischer Dieskau, Vyvyan, Baker, Mandikian, Vishnievskaya, Ferrier and Pears above all, still sounds like those singers even when others perform it. Britten also knew exactly how any instrumentalist was going to produce any note he wrote for him or her; which finger, methods of bowing, blowing, striking, pedalling, which string; you ignore his written indications at your peril. (By the way, none of this means that it is easy to perform: it is always possible though). Did he ever make a boo-boo in his orchestration? Just once, and he joked about it, it was so rare: he wrote a low note for the piccolo in Billy Budd which is off the instrument's range.  

Ben had charisma. He had the manner of a diffident prep school master, (clothes to match – a sports coat, grey bags à l'anglaise), speaking voice beguiling which the microphone distorted, it came out a bit like Prince Charles. He could charm you if he wanted something or liked you; but the charm would switch off if he didn't, or thought you might be hostile. There is too large a list of favourites who suddenly found that they were what he himself called 'corpses'. They were perhaps sacrifices to his career. But that was a dark side to his character. 

There were a couple of years when Ben would not work with the London Symphony because one day a couple of double-basses laughed at a newspaper joke while they had nothing to play for a few seconds. He thought they were laughing at him.  

His conducting was serious and penetrating; the heart and soul of the music was revealed.
It was curious about Peter's voice. With the consummation of their affair in the States, it changed, no longer that of a typical English choir tenor but, as some old friends pointed out, uncannily like the singing voice of Ben's mother. (Any comment, Dr. Freud?)

Perhaps Ben had one skin less than most of us. That might account for his sensitivity, his touchiness, maybe his genius.

Is the best of his music inspired by words? Not only are they impeccably set but they are set with an imagination that enhances and re-creates the original writer's spirit, style and imagery. He often chose words that you would think impossible to put to music or that would be destroyed in the setting. The only love duet, man and woman, occurs in The Prince of the Pagodas – wordless of course.

It was said that he turned down a knighthood but he was later awarded the Order of Merit and the first peerage ever awarded to a musician. He was happy to chum up with the Royals but that may have helped him to sleep nights in a country where, for most of his life, homosexuality was a criminal offence.

What a blessing it was to have lived at a time when it was possible to hear Britten play, conduct and produce a steady stream of wonderful new music!

Amis Anecdotage

Running parallel with the length of the main BBC studios in Maida Vale there is a narrow passage. One day the brilliant young percussionist Garry Ketell was carrying a large timp from backstage towards the main entrance. Coming the other way was Sir William Glock, at that time Controller of Music. They would have had to squeeze past each other; but when they were level Garry – a cheerful, cheeky Cockney bloke, said "Sir William, youre glocking my bangway".

In a BBC interview I talked to Garry about Pierre Boulez, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at that time, noted for his perceptive ear and his meticulous time-beating: did he ever make a mistake between time signatures, I asked? Oh yes, said Garry, he does sometimes. And what do you do when that happens? I sez to 'im, Boules, you just beat five and it should be seven (or whatever.) Sorry mate, he sez, and we do it again. Also sprach Garry Kettel.

One day in a master-class at Bryanston, a young soprano was singing a German Lied, a love song. Elisabeth Schumann stopped her and said 'Ach, my dear, I think you do not quite understand the German words." "But, Madame Schumann, I am German." "Oh, are you? but then you are very young; aber this is a love song and perhaps you have not been in love yet." "But Madame Schumann, I am married and have three children." "Ach, then I say nothing more, SING!"

Sir Charles Groves went to Bournemouth Symphony as a guest during the years when the all-year-round director was Rudolf Schwarz. Now Schwarz had been tortured in concentration camps and his beat took some getting together because his body worked in an eccentric way, the beat sometimes coming from unexpected quarters, behind his back or from his arm pit. Groves came on to the platform, bowed and stretched out his arms ready to give the upbeat to the Overture to Weber's Euryanthe. Just at that moment a fly settled on his nose so his left arm reached out to swat it. The orchestra played the first chord.

Did opera in country places begin with Glyndebourne? No, it was Glastonbury with The Immortal Hour, 1914, which became popular enough for a revival in Birmingham in 1921 and a run in London the following two years, 276 performances in all. It became a cult show, people went several times, even named their children after the heroine, Etain (remember the Faery Song: 'How beautiful they are'). The composer was Rutland Boughton 1878 – 1960; he organised an annual festival at Glastonbury with a series of operas on Arthurian plots. It was a truly rural affair, just piano accompaniment and the theatre so small that if a singer exited stage left, he or she had to leave the hall and run around in the open air if the next entry was stage right. So I was told by Gwen ffrangcon Davies, who sang the part of Etain; later she gave up singing to become one of our most distinguished actresses – I interviewed her when she was a hundred years old!

Boughton's idiom in those days was influenced by Wagner and the vogue for his music not survive the thirties.


Well into his eighties, Casals announced that he was going to marry again, to a Puerto Rico girl atleast fifty years younger. His doctor worried: the marriage could be fatal; your health might not stand it; You are well into your eighties: she is a young girl, again I say, as your doctor and your friend, Pau, the marriage could be fatal. Think about it. .....Casals pondered for several minutes, smoking his pipe, and then he said: "well, Diaz, all I can say is - if she dies, she dies. 

When Bax died in 1952 Walton was considerably miffed that he was not appointed Master of the Queens Music. The honour went instead to Sir Arthur Bliss. It so happened that, a few months before Walton died he passed out one day and was clinically dead for a few minutes but came round. While he was convalescing a friend asked him about those few minutes when he was clinically dead, what was happening on the other side, were they playing late Beethoven?"

No, William answered, "It was mercifully quiet, but then a fanfare started up, not one of mine.... Bliss, I suppose.   

EMIL GILELS was touring the States and one of his recitals took him to a remote place in the Boondocks. Nobody came to see him in the artist's room except just one person, obviously a guy from the sticks, sucking a straw. But Gilels was happy that at any rate somebody had come backstage to see him so they talked for quite a while. But as the guy was leaving, he said "Mr Gilels, you've been very kind, before I go could you answer a question that's been kind of bothering me, it's a matter of pronunciation: should it be Schumann or Schubert?

ALFRED KALMUS was a music publisher and administrator who joined the Viennese firm of Universal Edition as a young man he often met Mahler. The composer was always impetuous and in a hurry.  One day on hearing a noise from the street he rushed to the window, breaking the pane and cutting himself enough to make his forehead bleed. Knowing how accident-prone he was the office staff always looked out of the window when he was imminent. He usually came by tram but would often leap off before the tram had come to a stop. One day he got off so precipitously that a large package dropped from his overcoat pocket and the tram ran over the package, completely bifurcating it. Mahler picked up the two halves and stray pages of what was the proof of the orchestral score of the Symphony no. 9. Greatly upset he rushed into the office and the staff set about the tricky task of putting together the precious sheets of the Master's latest work.

One evening in Wembley after dinner Dr. K got out his visitors book and showed me a page where guests Alban Berg and George Gershwin had dined together with Alfred. Each composer had written a few bars of music from operas that never saw the light of day, publication or performance: Berg's Pandora' s Box and Geshwin's The Dybbuk. (Where is that visitor' book now, I wonder.)

Britten retained a certain innocence in things even when he had become a household name as the composer of Peter Grimes, the YPG et al. One day in the mid-fifties he said to Olive Zorian the leader of his EOG Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival: "I've lost no less than four Festival programme books this year. I can't understand it because I wrote my name on each one. 

Richard Strauss stopped a rehearsal of Don Juan and said: Gentlemen, you are playing like married men; but I want you to play as if you were engaged men.

Puccini used to send his friends and relatives a panettone by way of a Christmas card. One year he found that his secretary had sent one by mistake to his friend Toscanini. They were having a tiff. Puccini sent Toscanini a telegram: PANNETONE SENT BY MISTAKE. - PUCCINI. Back came another telegram: PANNETONE EATEN BY MISTAKE. TOSCANINI.                   


Some of the BBCSO were a bit uppity with Arturo the Great, none more so that the flautist, Robert Murchie. The conductor told him to leave the Queens Hall rehearsal. Slightly the worse for alcohol Murchie lurched towards the exit, knocking over a few viola stands on the way. At the door he turned to give Toscanini a few final cuss words but the conductor cut him short with: "Too late to apologise, you go"

A very pretty woman entered the Green Room. "Sir Thomas, I have a request; will you be godfather to my child?" Looking her up and down " Certainly, dear lady; but do we have to bring God into it?             


Leonard Bernstein employed a man whose main task was to stand in the wings with a lighted cigarette so that LB could take a couple of puffs in between taking bows on stage. - Herbert von Karajan employed a man whose main task was to stand similarly at the ready,  not with a cigarette but a brush and comb.


MALCOLM ARNOLD was playing the piano one summer's day many years ago. It was a hot day so the window was wide open. He was playing from the score a symphony by Mahler. Suddenly he was aware that somebody down in the street was singing or whistling the theme he was playing. He rushed to the window and called out: how do you know that tune? The woman down in the street answered: because my father wrote was Mahler's daughter Anna. She was at the time married to the conductor  Anatole Fistoulari. 

HANS KNAPPERTBUSCH found that his agent had booked him in to conduct a very dud orchestra in the Ruhr, the Bochum Philharmonic. He felt he had to honour the arrangement so he went. The chairman of the orchestra took him out to dinner, after the concert and during it he asked the conductor Herr Professor Knappertbusch, let's see, when was the last time you conducted the Bochum Philharmonic? Tonight.

GEORGE SOLTI was rehearsing the Royal Opera Orchestra in Covent Garden for a concert the work was the Fantastic Symphony. At one point he stopped and said to the fourth trumpet, what kind of instrument are you using? It sounds horrible. The player answered: It's a standard Boosey and Hawkes B flat. Horrible noise. Oh well, on we go. A minute later the first horn put up his hand: Sir George, what kind of a baton are you using?

SIR ADRIAN BOULT was known for his mildness, losing his temper perhaps once a decade. I asked him in an interview what caused that to happen, who did he lose it with? " Oh, railway porters and the like" So, usually he was good mannered and equable although he could be sharp if he thought a player inattentive. He was modest to a fault, which is perhaps why his autobiography Blowing my own Trumpet is rather bland and unrevealing, disappointing except for the first chapter, about his childhood. His strongest term of opprobrium was "you silly sausage" Asked once why his books on conducting concentrate entirely on the practical elements of the craft, never touching on the more intangible, profounder, side of the art, he answered " Well, yes, of course, there is that side of it.......but I am an Englishman, you know, and I don't go in for that sort of thing very much." 

One evening at Covent Garden Montserrat Caballé was the female lead in Ballo in Maschera.  Haitink looked up to give her the cue for her next entry in the love duet - but she wasn't to be seen. He managed to stop the orchestra, and then picked the phone on the conductor's desk. "

Get me the stage director; he hissed to the operator on the switch-board "I can't do that, sir. There's a performance going on"   "That, my dear, is where you are entirely wrong".