Britten through the eyes of…Em Marshall-Luck

Em Marshall-Luck is the Founder-Director of the English Music Festival, whose blueprint is to ‘celebrate Britain’s musical heritage by showcasing the brilliance, innovation and beauty of English music’. She is also Chairman of the Vaughan Williams Society, Chairman of the Bantock Society, and runs EM Records, a close relation to the festival. In this interview she speaks of Britten’s importance to English music, how he isn’t necessarily a typical English composer, and considers if other composers are emerging from his shadow.

Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?

There were a lot of encounters at the same time. I’m not sure of the first of those, but one of them would have been seeing Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House, and hearing Les illuminations and the Nocturne and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Actually, that’s completely wrong – I’ve just remembered that my first encounter was The Young Person’s Guide at a young age!

Which of them made the biggest impact?

All of them! Especially the opera, though. My parents were not particularly musical, so there wasn’t much in the way of English music at all, and that was my own discovery. I’d seen a couple of Mozart operas, so to encounter this very new sound world was mind blowing. It was fantastically staged, too, with the beak of the ship coming out of the middle of the stage. The performance standards were very high, too.

You took part in the Aldeburgh Festival a few times – what are your memories of that?

I was a Hesse student at it, and it was a lot of hard work! I can’t remember much of what was played, because I went back so many times. The scheme itself was very good, because until then I’d never communicated musically with people of my own age. It was a valuable experience for what I’ve gone on to do, which is of course to run the English Music Festival.

What is the aim of the festival now, as opposed to when it started?

You’re right to make the distinction, because the aim has developed. To begin with it was to unearth new pieces, but it has now expanded to look at neglected and overlooked pieces to as many people as we can from the early 20th century, and around the world.

Is it also the aim to carry that approach forward to the record label?

The record label is really taking off, and we’ve had some very positive reactions. There is a sea change in how people are thinking about English music. I think people are more willing to give English music a go, and they are finding there’s more depth to it. We know now that it’s not just Elgar, and people are more broad minded.

Do you feel we undervalue our classical music in this country sometimes?

Absolutely, yes. It is worth remembering as well that the BBC operated in such a way that tonal music was effectively banned in the 1960s and 1970s. Another aspect is that we are terrified of being seen as imperialistic, or jingoistic. With composers like Elgar they’re bound up with the Empire and people are reluctant to say they like it. We’ve always been slightly ashamed of our culture, and it even took Germany to promote Delius before we did!

Is Britten in a way responsible for the lack of opportunity given to the music of some other English composers?

I think that might be part of it. Britten is a complicated one, though, because on one hand you have the folk songs but on the other his sound world is much more international.

Do you think it healthy that Vaughan Williams and Britten were put on opposing sides of English musical life, as it were?

I think it is helpful, to a degree. When you get composers saying really catty things to each other, like Warlock and Constant Lambert did, then that’s not helpful, but otherwise it can be helpful. You’ve got to have and to accept that there is variety. If composers are saying that they don’t like another composer’s music, and giving a valid reason for it, then I would say that is healthy.

You have just had a book published called ‘Music in the Landscape’.

Yes, and there is an entire chapter on Britten, setting him in Aldeburgh – though the references in his music are not to a direct program but are heard directly in it.

You also write about travel, and I was wondering if you thought Britten quite pioneering in that respect, visiting Japan, Bali, America and more?

Not necessarily, because a lot of composers traveled. Bantock went to Bolivia, China, Africa and all sorts of places around the world. Holst went to Algeria, and even Elgar went to Italy. You’ve also got John Foulds, who went to India, so I don’t think Britten was exceptional in that way particularly. Bantock often put oriental music in, and you’ve got the Beni Mora Suite of Holst, too.

Do you think the record industry has been good for English music, thinking of the CDs released in the last twenty years or so?

It has been immensely helpful, and I think we owe an awful lot to companies like Hyperion and Chandos for bringing that music forward. From my own point of view, I wouldn’t have known about this music to set up the English Music Festival, and my only question now would be why can’t you hear it in the concert hall? I think it gradually is getting there, and I think Roger Wright is doing excellent work at the BBC Proms towards that, but I think some concert halls are lagging behind – and not just in English music, either.

What is your personal favourite in Britten’s output and why?

It’s extremely difficult, and I don’t think I could do it, pick just one piece. The songs mean so much, and so does Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes is incredible too. Possibly if I had to prune it down to one it would be Curlew River. And then there is the War Requiem of course!

Are there any of his pieces you find more difficult?

I don’t get on that well with his chamber works. In general I’m more of a choral-orchestral sort of person, or I go for the songs. It’s not that I dislike them, but they don’t appeal as much to me.

What do you hope people will take from the Britten centenary?

I hope that Britten will be better recognised abroad. I count him as one of our greatest composers, and not just in Britain but worldwide. What he did in opera was absolutely revolutionary, and I hope that will come to be properly recognised. I hope it will happen in the coming year.

This year’s English Music Festival runs from Friday 24th – Monday 27th May, and will include performances of a number of Britten works, alongside those of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius, Howells, Sullivan and Elgar. Details can be found here. The festival’s equivalent record label is here, and Music in the Landscape is available from Robert Hale.

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