It is all well and good looking at a composer and his potential influences, but it is just as instructive to look at the other, possibly more negative side.
With Britten, there is much information that tells us exactly who or what he didn’t like, and why. His diary asides are so frank that we have a very good record of his verdicts on most composers, whether contemporaries or musical ancestors, save for the odd contradiction. The idiosyncrasies occur, as so often, between the impetuousness of youth and the greater experience of age, where some but not all of Britten’s famously direct opinions have mellowed a little.
For many of these quotations I am indebted to John Bridcut’s excellent ‘aperitif’ Essential Britten, an excellent introduction to the composer published by Faber, but also to the older biographies from Michael Kennedy (Master Musicians), Michael Oliver (Phaidon) and one of the most recent from Paul Kildea.
The music of Beethoven is an especial curiosity. From the same year, 1963, Britten says of the Coriolan Overture, “What a marvellous beginning, and how well the development in sequence is carried out!” Yet when talking of the famous last movement of the Piano Sonata no.32 he speaks of how “the sound of the variations was so grotesque I just couldn’t see what they were all about”.
Sadly for Brahms, the opinions are more uniform, with the infamous “It’s not bad Brahms I mind, it’s good Brahms I can’t stand” seemingly representing Britten’s views throughout his life. Yet even here there was a side of Britten bringing positives from composers he didn’t always get on with. In the case of Brahms his vehicle was the Liebeslieder waltzes, which he often performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. The BBC captured a sparkling recording with a starry cast, including soprano Heather Harper, mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, Sir Peter Pears, baritone Thomas Hemsley and fellow pianist Claudio Arrau.
There was an often uneasy truce with English composers, but in the early 1930s in particular Britten was forthright in his rejection of what was perceived to be the future of English music. “I am absolutely incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes”, he said in 1931. Then, managing to insult two composers at once, “Certainly the best way to make me like Elgar is to listen to him after Vaughan Williams”. Later in life he quantified himself. “My struggle all the time was to develop a consciously controlled professional technique. It was a struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seemed to stand for”.
Walton, a potential rival, also suffered – but was often gracious in his own praise of Britten. The common link here was Sir Peter Pears, who performed a number of Walton’s songs from Façade. Again in the 1930s, Britten encountered Walton’s Symphony no.1. “A great tragedy for English music”, was the verdict…”a conventional work, reactionary in the extreme and dull and depressing”. Nearly thirty years later, mind, the Viola Concerto had a rather better impact. “A great turning point in my musical life”, exclaimed Britten. “You showed me the way of being relaxed and fresh, and intensely personal”.
Clearly Britten was striving for his own path, one along which he wanted to lead the way. There were composers he took in his wake – and we will encounter them much later on in the centenary year. But for now it bears thinking of these composers, none of them bad of course – but all of them creating friction in the musical mind of Britten at times. Such friction, it seemed, served only to show him the way he should be going clearer than ever.