Foundations – Britten and Schubert


In an article for the Guardian around his new series The Story of Music, Howard Goodall makes the very believable observation that Schubert invented the modern pop song. He presents a compelling argument, for although Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were writing ‘Lieder’ before Schubert, he gave the song its verse-refrain template that Goodall projects forward to apply to the music of Adele.

Interestingly Britten, in his recorded Schubert career at least, tended not to go for isolated songs, moving instead towards the cycles of Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin, both of which he recorded for Decca with Sir Peter Pears. Of the symphonies, the only one he performed with great regularity was the ‘Unfinished’, yet as with Mozart the music for two pianos, or piano four hands, proved the perfect vehicle for concerts at Aldeburgh with Sviatoslav Richter.

Listening to these two piano recordings, the pleasure both performers and audience derive from this music is abundantly clear. The first variation of the Divertissement on French motifs, has a balletic grace, beautifully light on its feet as if dancing. Meanwhile the Fantasia in F minor has a compelling intensity, the fugue quite brittle but deep in its insights, especially when the apex is reached at about 2’50” in the first section.

It is perhaps in the music of Schubert where we get to hear Britten the accompanist at his very best. With Pears he tells the same poetic story as the singer in some remarkably descriptive responses to the text. Witness the incredibly subdued Gute Nacht that opens Winterreise, with Britten’s piano very light in the background. Perhaps even more vivid is his accompaniment to Erstarrung, which is detailed but wholly complementary, coming to the fore when needed. There is a real frisson to the turbulent Rückblick, before Pears’ agitated delivery, and an unsettling air to the start of Im Dorfe. Frühlingstraum is similarly robust.

With cellist Mstislav Rostropovich the personality dynamic would no doubt have been rather different. Here Britten is on a level with one of the most forthright musical personalities of the 20th century, yet it is his restraint in the opening pages that are a joy to behold. The introduction of the theme in the first movement finds Britten taking all the time in the world – more than any other pianist in this passage – but expressing himself wonderfully. In the faster music the pair can be likened to dancers in hold, Rostropovich taking the lead but Britten shadowing – and complementing – his every move. The slow movement, as with Britten’s approach to Mozart, takes on the form of an aria.

Elements of Schubert that may have strayed in to Britten’s own writing are difficult to pin down, but one thing common to the music of both composers is their willingness to muddy the waters between major and minor keys. Schubert does it in his late works, the String Quartets and Piano Sonatas especially, while Britten takes this a step further in a song such as the Elegy from the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the horn moving between the two as if uncertain as to how to treat the ending of such an emotive song. On numerous occasions in the War Requiem Britten hints at one form of a key but chooses the other, as he does in the Agnus Dei, cohabiting elements of both keys.

When the voyage through Britten’s works begins in just a couple of weeks’ time then no doubt more instances of these techniques will be revealed – and it could be that further debts to Schubert are uncovered. There is no doubt Britten held his music in incredibly high esteem.

The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist. The following recordings were used as reference:

Schubert: Winterreise, D911 – Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Schubert: Divertissement sur des motifs originaux francais in E minor, D823; Fantasia in F minor, D940; Variations on an original theme in A flat major, D813; Grand Duo in C major, D812 – Sviatoslav Richter and Benjamin Britten (pianos) – live from Aldeburgh (Decca)
Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D821 – Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, D795 – Peter Pears (tenor) and Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op.31 (Elegy) Sir Peter Pears (tenor), Barry Tuckwell (horn), London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Britten: War Requiem, Op.66 (Agnus Dei) Sir Peter Pears (tenor), The Bach Choir, London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

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