The Mahler revival reached England in the early 1960s – but Britten could with good reason claim to be 30 years ahead of that particular game. When the composer was far less fashionable in the 1930s, Britten spotted what many fellow composers and musicologists could not then appreciate in his music.
The work that moved him so was the Symphony no.4, which he first heard in the early 1930s. Michael Kennedy, in his excellent ‘Master Musicians’ Britten portrait, captures his reaction, documented in an American magazine in 1942. “The form was so cunningly contrived; every development surprised one and yet sounded inevitable. Above all, the material was remarkable, and the melodic shapes highly original, with such rhythmic and harmonic tension from beginning to end. After that concert, I made every effort to hear Mahler’s music”.
The work stayed with Britten, so much so that when the opportunity arose to conduct Mahler at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1961 he opted for the Fourth with the London Symphony Orchestra. His interpretation was a striking one, taking the first movement a good five minutes faster than most conductors, yet still revealing the subtle touches of Mahler’s orchestration and the cohesion of symphonic form that he so admired.
The orchestration especially carried great influential power for Britten, for it was in the music of Mahler that the idea of writing chamber music within the symphony orchestra became real, with moments of great intimacy and concentrated expression achieved through restraint rather than volume. This seemingly suited Britten’s own personality and musical style, and became a big part of his way of working, explicitly so in the chamber orchestra parts written in to the War Requiem.
Britten preferred Mahler’s song settings over the symphonies, although Bruno Walter’s recording of the Symphony no.9 held a special place. Rather, he went for works such as the Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde, both of which carried incredible weight in his mind. Of the latter’s closing, epic Abschied, he wrote in June 1937 of how it ‘passes over me like a tidal wave’, while the Kindertotenlieder he described as ‘a most lovely work’.
For the Fourth Symphony he once declared his ‘more genuine affection for than any other piece in the world’, and in it and more of the composer’s output Britten seems to have found the Schubert in Mahler – the delicate scoring, the almost peerless vocal writing and, crucially, the subject matter. Mahler preoccupied himself with mortality, often seen through the eyes of a child, and this could loosely be applied to many of Britten’s works, too.
Several Britten works carry the imprint of Mahler explicitly – the Sinfonia da Requiem and Russian Funeral being prime examples identified thus far, along with passages of the War Requiem, while the orchestral song collections Les illuminations, Nocturne and theQuatre chansons françaises also take their lead from Mahler, according to sources. Interestingly Britten also went the other way in his respect of the composer, arranging What the Wild Flowers tell me for a reduced orchestra in 1941 after a suggestion from his publisher.
No doubt as we explore Britten further his love for and preoccupation with the weight of Mahler’s musical language will be fully revealed, but it is not in doubt that the Austrian was one of Britten’s greatest loves and influences.
The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist. With the Britten recording of the Symphony no.4 unavailable I have substituted my personal favourite, conducted by Rafael Kubelik with his wife Elsie Morison as soloist. The playlist also includes Bruno Walter’s famed recording of Das Lied von der Erde. The following recordings were used as reference:
Mahler: Symphony no.4 – Joan Carlyle (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (‘Britten the Performer’ series from BBC/IMG Artists)
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Deutsche Grammophon)
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder – Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Hallé Orchestra / Sir John Barbirolli (EMI)
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde – Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Julius Patzak (baritone), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Bruno Walter (Decca)
Mahler, arr. Britten: What the Wild Flowers tell me from Symphony no.3 – Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Järvi