Britten through the eyes of…Sally Beamish

The composer Sally Beamish is making several notable contributions to Benjamin Britten’s anniversary year. The first of these is Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten, written for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, with whom she played viola. In this interview we spoke about her approach to the piece, her thoughts on Britten’s music and her other new works to help commemorate the year.

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

The first one I remember was being taken to Peter Grimes by my mother, who was playing in Sadler’s Wells Orchestra. She took me along to a rehearsal, but while I was there I got lost backstage and bumped in to Peter Pears, which was terrifying! After I saw Peter Grimes I went home and started writing my own storm music, and that’s why I chose the second of the sea interludes as the basis for Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten.

I learned to read music at a very young age because of my mother, and even before I learned to read, so music was always going to play a very big part. She decided to distract me, to see if I could learn music, and that’s why it happened in that order! I learned that rather than read each picture (a flower for instance) I would make a note.

Did you meet Britten at all?

No. I was upset when he died, because I longed to meet him but never did, but I was a founder member with Cecil Aronowitz of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, and Britten came to the opening concert in a wheelchair.

What drew you to the theme from the Peter Grimes interlude? Did you have a shortlist or was that always the one you wanted to use?

No, I just remembered that experience and that it was the theme that made the biggest impression, and because it was on the viola perhaps. Once I started working with it I really regretted it, because everything came back like Britten, and for a while I lost my voice and had to remember how to write myself!

How did you draw on Britten’s ways of working in the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge?

The original idea was that it would be a piece to go with the Frank Bridge variations, as I had played with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields as a viola player, and my mother as a violin player. I did some of what he did, taking dance forms and adapting them, and drawing on several composers who have connections with Aldeburgh, but those are hidden references. There is a Requiem that echoes his pacifist beliefs and mine as well, and I made an introduction at the beginning. The first variation is a Barcarolle, which refers to Death In Venice, so in that way it’s spanning from Peter Grimes to his last opera.

Was it intimidating, writing variations on a theme by Britten?

It got more intimidating, especially as I’d decided to do it myself! I thought it would be fun to do what he had done, but it got worse as it went on!

What are the other pieces that you’ve written for the Britten centenary?

I’ve written a solo cello suite for Ursula Smith, in memory of the Scottish composer Kevin McCrae, to be performed alongside the Britten Third Suite and the Bach Second. Mine is incorporating Scottish folk tunes as a tribute to Kevin and it is also using a suite of movements related to Bach – there’s a Prelude and a Reel, along more traditional movements from baroque suites.

I’ve also written two songs to be performed at Aldeburgh, as part of a collaborative work called Songs of Innocence and Experience. It was originally to be done by Richard Rodney Bennett but has been divided up between composers, and myself, Charlotte Bray, Anna Meredith and Thea Musgrave have written two songs each, for children’s choir and piano. I chose two settings of Blake.

It took me a long time to choose the poems, and I found them tricky, but Little Boy Lost and The Little Vagabond really resonated with me. The Little Vagabond is quite funny, a raucous waltz. I was listening to some of Britten’s songs for children, and it was fascinating to see how he wrote so deftly, and was so engaging.

Do you feel a certain kinship with Britten, with your first instrument being the viola?

I think so, but there are so many composers who are or were viola players. I used to play as an extra with the Philharmonia Orchestra and loved being at the back in front of the woodwind, so you would know and learn about a badly written line and be aware of how the players would react. I also played in the London Sinfonietta and Lontano, the group conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, so I knew how it was if something didn’t fit or sound good. I’ve always been passionate of something the players enjoy playing, as if it’s a gift to them. You want them to respond to what you write.

Would you say Britten is an active influence on some elements of your own music?

There are some Britten pieces that are very much in my psyche – Les illuminations especially. I remember playing that as a student, it was fantastic playing the viola solos, as there was a real sense of mystery. What I like in Britten, though, is the clarity.

Have your surroundings affected your writing as much as they did for Britten?

I’ve done a lot of work in Orkney, and the coast, and the music of Maxwell Davies, has influenced me a lot. The sea has crept into my music, and so has birdsong ornamentation.

Is it very rewarding working with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields as a composer now, having played in the orchestra?

It is a very special way of working with the Academy, as everyone is a soloist and equal. My mother recounted a story of her first rehearsal, where she was sitting at the back of the violins, and Sir Neville Marriner picked up a comment from her in his first rehearsal and asked her to repeat it, as he genuinely wanted her opinion. That is his absolute gift, to bring musicians together and work with them. Because of that, this piece divides a lot, and uses the last player of each section at times.

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

I would have to say Les illuminations, and I think I’ve said why – although having said that I don’t really know exactly why!

Are there any of his pieces you find more difficult?

I was never very keen on Death In Venice actually, I played it in Glyndebourne once and found it upsetting and disturbing. It’s an incredible piece of music, but I didn’t like it. With a work like The Turn of the ScrewI don’t find that, it has a certain lightness.

Did the War Requiem make a powerful impact, given your pacifist beliefs?

I come from a Quaker family so it’s in my blood, and I’m passionate about it. The War Requiem resonated powerfully, but again I find it difficult to listen to. I’m working on a similar piece to commemorate World War I next year.

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

There is so much to celebrate in Britten, such an incredible contribution to music in every sphere – community, children, film, and he reinvented himself in each form. He was so engaged with everything and was attracted by things he hadn’t done before. I think it will be a very joyful year!

Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten will receive its first performance by the Academy in the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton on 9 May, with four further performances in the UK finishing at Cadogan Hall, London on 23 May. More details can be found here.

Songs of Innocence and Experience will receive its first performance by the New London Children’s Choir alongside Britten’s own Friday Afternoons at the Aldeburgh Festival on 9 June.

The Suite for Solo Cello will be first performed by Ursula Smith at the Lake District Summer Festival on 14 August.

Sally’s own website can be found here.

Finally, a Spotify playlist of her own music, including orchestral and chamber works, can be accessed by clicking here.

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