Roger Wright is the Controller of BBC Radio 3, a post he has held since 1998. In 2007 he also took over as Director of the BBC Proms. In this detailed interview we spoke about his performing and listening experiences with Britten’s music, the context of his output within 20th century English music and Radio 3’s approach to marking the centenary.
Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?
The pieces that made an impact on me very early, and the things that I spent a long time listening to, were Peter Grimes and the War Requiem. I can remember the old LP sleeves for Grimes. Those are the two I remember following the scores to, and feeling like I knew them inside out. I was also the Captain in a performance of The Golden Vanity at school, so that was quite fun, the excitement of being involved in something like that. At the time you don’t get the significance, but there is something that resonates.
Did you meet Britten at all?
No, although I met Peter Pears on a couple of occasions at a reception and a couple of performances.
Have you played any of the cello music?
I do have a cello, but I’m very careful to say I’m not a cellist, as my family would just laugh! I play piano and sing though. I suppose as a performer I have sung in the choral music, and as a singer I have sung a good number of the folksongs. Now I’m accompanying our kids in them!
How are you approaching the Britten 100 programming for Radio 3?
What we try to do is to look at the composer. Clearly anniversaries are important things to mark, and the danger is that you get shot at from both sides, because you get people who say ‘you’re just doing anniversary composers’. Yet if we were to have ignored Wagner, Verdi and Lutoslawski in this year of all years it would be a scandal. So you can’t win.
What we try to do is do them in a way that feels right for the output itself, to fashion them accordingly. We’ve had one Britten weekend already, with a variety of things, and also we have the advantage of doing what Radio 3 can uniquely do. By that I mean the drama around Billy Budd as well as hearing the opera itself, the Ian Bostridge on Britten programme, the live concert with the world premiere of the Two Psalms, the Building A Library on Budd – that’s the sort of thing that Radio 3 can uniquely do. Later in the year, around the birthday time itself in November, we’ll have another weekend based in Aldeburgh, and there will be other moments throughout the year. I can’t sadly tell you about the Proms at the moment until the launch in April.
Will you take a similar approach to the Proms programming?
One of the things it’s really important we do at Radio 3 and at the Proms is to provide context. I think Britten is self-evidently such a significant figure, but part of the way that you realise the significance of the figure, I think, is to look at the context, to look what they grew from and look what was happening round about them. For example, we are doing the Tippett symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and you tell the story of Britten partly by also telling the Tippett story, not because they were utterly interwoven as stories, but finding out how Tippett was, and the approach to his music and place in UK society, and Britten’s. When you compare the two they provide an additional illumination. You think about King Priam at the time of the War Requiem, for instance. Some people have described Tippett’s ‘open’ music and Britten’s ‘closed’ music, as very different personalities, and you do help to tell the story, frankly, of post-war English music, by putting the two side by side.
You can help Britten by looking out of context, not least because the story of Peter Grimes is so well known, kick starting British music itself after the Second World War, but you need to understand where Britten was in the 1920s and 1930s musically to know what the impact of that was. When you then put figures like Lutoslawski and Shostakovich alongside Britten, you can’t take them out of the mix either.
Is listening to Britten in the context of his teacher Frank Bridge helpful too?
Bridge is an interesting example, because you listen to his Third and Fourth String Quartets, and there is a journey where you can tell some of the music is coming from Enter Spring and Summer, but when you look at the music of The Sea, there is no way you can tell he is going to end up with the Third and Fourth Quartets. That is a journey where you realise how lucky Britten was to be stuck with Bridge, who was aware of that sort of musical development going on through Berg.
Will you be using recordings from the BBC archives as part of your examination of Britten?
Well Britten and the BBC is an interesting story in itself, with the amount of things captured on television alone. The notion now that a television organisation would commission an opera in the way that the BBC did with Owen Wingrave is pretty extraordinary, and again it shows the relationship with Decca, with the BBC – these are all key factors in documenting Britten. We live thank goodness with that valuable archive now, enabling him to keep in the public eye. For all those that go ‘he’s such a dominant figure’, it is because he was such an important figure.
From your time with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, did you get a sense of how Britten is received in America?
It was never easy to gauge. You needed keen performing debutants to move it on and convince people. British music in certain quarters hasn’t travelled particularly well, if you think of Elgar and Delius, two very different composers, and how difficult it has been to get their music heard in the States. But look at France and Germany, how hard it is there too – and that’s where you do need the people who will take the music, who often are British, to be able to make the case.
Do you think Britten’s music appeals to all ages?
When I think of the performances I have been involved with or attended, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t captivate. He does have this extraordinary knack of writing music that is right for kids, not beyond them but not talking down to them either. I played in Noye’s Fludde not very long ago, and when you’re on the inside of that, and you see the different textures, and the way in which the kids’ music is open and the way the adults’ music is written, you just think it’s masterful. It’s that amazing ability to write in that way, with such facility, and it never seems facile. There is always a level of invention, and it is always immaculately well written for whatever age and forces are involved.
Will the BBC also capture Britten the Performer, and his artistry as conductor and pianist?
I was thinking the other day how relatively short the life was, and actually what he did in it. When you add up, he was travelling around a bit, but he was obviously an incredibly disciplined person in what he found the time to do, and the organisation of it. If you think just about his world within Aldeburgh, performing as pianist and conductor and composing, it is remarkable – not least because how long would it take if you or I were to write out Billy Budd now? And we would have had to compose it in the first place! Part of the story of The Turn Of The Screw, is where he wasn’t concerned about the copyists getting going with the copying of the first act, because he knew exactly where it was going, and you think ‘Blimey’. The theme and variations in the first act, the fact he already had that worked out in his head, shows partly how he achieved all of that, but it’s still to me a relatively short life and a remarkable body of work.
The other thing I think is rather unusual for an anniversary is how few of the works one can genuinely say are neglected. So often you say the bigger pieces are the ones that need to be unveiled in an anniversary year. You think of the Delius 150 last year, there were very few outings for A Village Romeo and Juliet or Fennimore and Gurda. While I’m not putting those into the same bracket as the Britten stage works, if you think how regularly opera houses throughout the world are staging pretty much the complete canon of Britten operas, and how many of the really important pieces can you genuinely say are neglected? I think you can say that is a testament to the quality of the output.
What is your favourite Britten piece?
I can’t possibly answer that, any more than I can talk about favourite composers! You can be caught out by a particular moment. When somebody of my age is involved in the classical music world, you can’t really avoid Britten, so there are a whole range of emotions around his music. Some of it is based on nostalgia, a particular performance, or something a friend’s been involved in. I’ve long given up creating a theoretical magical line that makes me understand things I like or things I understand less!
Are there any pieces in Britten’s output you find more difficult?
So much of it depends on one’s own mood and openness at the time. There are certain pieces where that closed world I find rather claustrophobic, and that’s not just the pieces that are supposed to be that way, like The Turn Of The Screw or Billy Budd. So many of those worlds are about that closed environment, and when I’m in a less receptive mode that can leave me feeling very cold and distant from him. When I’m in more receptive modes I can still get extraordinary satisfaction from thinking ‘my goodness, this is technically remarkable, with such control and level of invention. With great figures the output tends to sit in one place, and doesn’t change, and what we need to do is gather different experiences from it. It’s about where we are as people, coming to this music. Some of those later pieces are more tricky, but you look at Death In Venice, A Time There Was and the Third String Quartet, and there is a compelling world that draws you in.