Foundations – Britten and Debussy


There is little evidence to suggest the music of Debussy had a lasting influence on the music of Britten, but four recordings exist that speak of Britten’s obvious affection and respect for the French composer.

One of those recordings, a live account of the suite for two pianos En blanc et noir, was given with Sviatoslav Richter at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 1967. It is startling in its intensity, particularly in the second movement, which takes out the composer’s anger on the enemies of France. A single blow to both pianos is striking and unnerving, before proceeding to a ghostly account of the Dies irae chant, subsumed in other textures but still standing out in this performance.

Britten also performed the Cello Sonata, accompanying Mstislav Rostropovich in one of the cellist’s most famous recordings. It is a wonderful reading of light and shade, at times exuberant, at other times furtive. It provides the most explicit link between the music of both composers, too, for Britten modeled the Serenata of his Cello Suite no.1 on the Sérénade, the humid second movement of the Debussy.

With Yehudi Menuhin Britten played the Violin Sonata in G minor, taking it to the Belsen Concentration Camp where they included it in a recital given on 27 July 1945, a piece written at the end of the First World War performed at the end of the Second. The musical language is much less confrontational than En Blanc et Noir, however, and on their recording the two performers find a lighter tone that tends towards a bluesy musical language on occasion.

In the BBC archives sits a recording of Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in Prélude a l’après midi d’un faune at Orford Church in 1966. There is a heady atmosphere throughout the piece – not unusual – but Britten keeps things moving, carefully shading Debussy’s orchestral colours, particularly in the woodwind and the heat haze of the strings.

These recordings show Britten’s care and attention to detail as a performer – but also that he fully understood Debussy’s musical language, even if he didn’t obviously take it as a starting point for his own.

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

Debussy: En blanc et noir – Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter (pianos) (Decca)
Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor – Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) and Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor – Yehudi Menuhin (violin) and Benjamin Britten (piano) (BBC Legends)
Debussy: Prélude a l’après midi d’un faune – English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (‘Britten the Performer’ series from BBC/IMG Artists)
Britten: Cello Suite No.1 Op.72 – Mstislav Rostropovich (Decca)

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