Britten through the eyes of…Colin Matthews

The composer Colin Matthews worked as Benjamin Britten’s assistant in the final years of his life, and also worked with Deryck Cooke on his painstaking completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. He has completed and / or orchestrated a number of Britten works, including the late works Praise We Great Menand the Welcome Ode and A Charm Of Lullabies.

A highly respected composer, his own work includes Broken Symmetry, Turning Point, the Fourth Sonata for orchestra and concertos for violin, cello and horn among others. In this detailed interview he recounts memories of working with Britten, his methods of composition, the legacy that he leaves to composition and music making in the UK, and how he struggles to fully enjoy Peter Grimes.

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

The only strong memory is of the broadcast of the first performance of the War Requiem. I can’t recall how much of Britten’s music I knew at that time – not a great deal, I think.

Do you remember being introduced to him for the first time?

I met him, superficially, at the dress rehearsal for Humphrey Searle’s Hamlet at Covent Garden in 1969; my first real meeting was at the orchestral rehearsals for Owen Wingrave in autumn 1970, which I think took place in Kingsway Hall.

What did you learn as a composer from working as an assistant to him?

My contact with living composers was not at the time extensive – previous to meeting Britten I had (see below) learned most from working with Mahler. To assist one of the great composers was a remarkable experience, but I was not overwhelmed by it: there were practical aspects which meant that I simply had to do the job I had been asked to do. So I would say I learned most what it was to be a professional composer, not perhaps really knowing that there were very few composers as professional as Britten. The learning process goes on: I have just produced a recording of The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, and found many new things in a work that I thought I knew inside out!

Did you see much of Britten’s compositional process at close hand?

Yes, both while working on Death in Venice – I saw the composition sketch page by page with its many changes and corrections – and later when I worked on Phaedra and the String Quartet No.3, playing through the sketches with Britten, sometimes being asked which of two alternatives I preferred. Even in his poor state of health he still wrote at speed; although not at the rate he composed his last opera – I could barely keep up.

What did you learn from the compositional process?

One thing was that, although Britten’s inner ear was impeccable, he preferred to hear what he had written before taking final decisions. Another was that he was genuinely self-effacing – he needed reassurance, and wanted to know what I thought of several passages. As my brother has related, when we played through the completed Third Quartet, he asked us ‘Do you think it’s any good?’

What do you remember about the Welcome Ode in particular?

When Britten asked me to orchestrate it from his sketches I had expected that he would have annotated the work fairly thoroughly. But he had barely indicated any instrumentation, and this was a shock. Part of the reason was that he had thought that, as a work written for children, he might simply leave it as a short score, with instrumentation optional and determined by register. But when he decided that it would be a normal full score he simply told me that I should take it away and orchestrate it: he didn’t, at that stage, have the strength to work on a score himself. We subsequently worked on it together in some detail, but by and large the orchestration is mine.

How did you go about completing Praise We Great Men?

Well, I didn’t ‘complete’ it, as there was nearly half still to be written when Britten died, and I felt it should stop exactly where he had left it. (Except that, after an empty bar, I added an instrumental coda, based on the penultimate section.) We’d already agreed that I would orchestrate it, which would have been a more elaborate process than the Welcome Ode, and I completed the score a month or two after Britten’s death. It was nearly another ten years before Rostropovich (for whom it was being written) gave the first performance.

How would you describe Britten’s personality when you were working with him? By all accounts he seems to have been very sharp of mind.

It’s so difficult to reconcile all that I know of Britten now with what I experienced. Because I was useful to him, he was never anything other than generous towards me. That sounds a little mean, but Britten notoriously lost interest in people who had served their purpose – there was a close circle of friends and then a periphery of associates who would come and go. I happened to be one who stayed to the end. That seems a very ungenerous thing to say! But I was aware in the first years I worked with him that there were boundaries you did not cross, opinions better left unexpressed.

In the last three years of his life he was much gentler (Rita Thomson’s influence in part) and I could not but feel intensely sympathetic to the state he was in, and the fact that he needed help. Even then I had few conversations with him of any depth – he was always reluctant to talk about his own music, and difficult to draw out. Perhaps my fault: I wish I had asked him more.

When you were working on the completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony with Deryck Cooke, were you aware of a kind of kinship between his music and Britten’s?

No, not at all. I was completely unaware of Britten’s feelings for Mahler, or that he had conducted the Fourth Symphony in 1961. At the time I was first working on the Tenth, from 1963 onwards, Britten was not a major part of my musical life. Later I certainly talked with Deryck Cooke about Britten, but I don’t recall talking to Britten about Mahler at all, although I must have been aware in the 1970s of his love of Mahler, and he must have known of my involvement with the Tenth, the score of which was published a year before he died. A curiously blind spot – perhaps I’ve blanked it out!

Do you see Britten’s influence at work in the composers of today?

I’m not sure about direct influence. Today’s composers have avoided the somewhat polemical atmosphere I grew up in where there was pressure to be on one side or the other, and they welcome Britten as much of a part of their musical world as Boulez, who probably still regards Britten as hardly a composer at all. (I’m glad to be able to admire both!).

Britten almost single-handedly turned composing in this country from an amateur pursuit into a respectable profession, and for that everyone is grateful. That’s his legacy: the language of his music is something else, and although there are some for whom it is influential, for most – and I’d include myself – the actual language comes second to the admiration for what he achieved.

Do you think people (particularly conductors and singers) understand Britten’s music better now than they did perhaps in the 1970s?

I think that in the 1970s Britten’s and Pears’ performing tradition to some extent inhibited different approaches – for instance, Britten was known to disapprove of Jon Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes – whereas now a whole generation has grown up who have developed their own way of looking at the music. Not necessarily better, but different, and to be welcomed: the music has become a central part of the repertoire.

Also we have a much wider perspective on Britten’s work, through extensive scholarship, and also perhaps because of the reappearance of music that he withdrew or was not published in his lifetime (see below).

How do you think the Aldeburgh Festival has continued to develop since Britten’s death?

Not so long ago every successive Festival would be greeted with something like ‘at last the Aldeburgh Festival has come out from the shadow it’s been in since Britten’s death’! That’s now ceased, but I think it’s fair to say that there was a period of some stagnation, when Pears had a dominant influence on the Festival which wasn’t so healthy. There were times when there was too much emphasis on maintaining a Britten ‘tradition’, which was becoming a little stale.

The international approach initiated by Oliver Knussen and maintained by his successors as artistic directors has meant that the Festival has kept its freshness, and is a vital part of the new music scene. Britten encouraged the younger generation of composers, even when their music was not sympathetic to him. There are not many traditional festivals in this country where Lachenmann could sell out a hall, or where a day would be given over to John Cage, as happened at Aldeburgh last year.

When you have worked on completion of Britten scores, what has been the principal you have worked by?

Most importantly, that there is something to be gained by bringing to light a score that Britten himself did not complete, or withdrew. Often the reasons for a work falling into either of these categories is not a musical one – for instance the score of the Clarinet Concerto was impounded by US Customs and not returned to Britten for several months; the circumstances of the first performance of the Temporal Variations somehow upset Britten; Young Apollo was most likely withdrawn because Pears was jealous of its portrayal of Wulff Scherchen. A lot of the works of the early 1930s simply disappeared because Britten was too busy to revisit them.

Britten kept every scrap of music that he wrote; and several times he looked out early pieces and reworked them, beginning as early as the Simple Symphony, but also later in life Tit for Tat, the Five Walztes, and the String Quartet in D major; and he was known to have a soft spot for the Quatre chansons françaises. So there’s a precedent. Sometimes the Britten Estate has been accused of scraping the barrel – but this is from people who have no idea of the size of the barrel – only 95 works have opus numbers, but the number of works listed in the recently completed Thematic Catalogue numbers nearly 1200.

Do you think Britten’s biggest achievements – particularly Peter Grimes and the War Requiem – dominate a bit at the expense of some of the later works?

I’m not sure – it’s a very different case from, say, Holst and The Planets. Perhaps there’s a bit too much of a knee-jerk reaction to think of those two works when Britten’s name is mentioned, and I do have a concern that the War Requiem will be performed so many times in the centenary that its message could be weakened. But, although some works are unfairly neglected, I think that Britten is recognised as being a great deal more than a two work composer.

What is your personal favourite in his output and why

Oh goodness, what a question. There are works that I have a particular feeling for because they are, to some extent, neglected – Our Hunting Fathers, The Prince of the Pagodas, the Cello Symphony. If pushed – and it could be different on another day – I would have to choose between the Sinfonia da Requiem and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, and today it’s the Serenade.

Are there any of his pieces you find more difficult to listen to?

Confession time: I have something of a problem with Peter Grimes. Not musically, but because it takes an exceptional production to make me feel sympathetic to Grimes himself – like several of Britten’s central characters his defeat is self-inflicted (I have the same problem with Lucretia) and I want to shake him rather than send him to his death. And some of the other characters are painted too simply – Bob Boles’s drunkenness, the silly coyness of the Nieces, for instance. But the lack of appreciation is a fault of my own, whereas the fact that I find The Prodigal Son difficult is, I think, because Britten failed to find the originality that he had achieved in the earlier two church parables.

Finally, what do you hope people will take from the Britten centenary?

First, I hope that they will remain as keen to hear his music in 2014 and onwards. And what I would most hope for – and it’s almost there already – is that he will be recognised as a very significant international figure, as the audible proof that Britain is far from being a ‘land without music’.

You can find out more about Colin Matthews by reading his biography on the NMC website, and can sample some of his work on his publisher Faber‘s website.

To mark Britten’s centenary NMC are offering their Britten titles at a special rate here. In November 2013 NMC will release premiere recordings of 4 works for stage and broadcast: Britain to America and An American In Britain, jointly commissioned by CBS Radio and the BBC, performed by the Hallé and Mark Elder; and music for 2 stage productions with WH Auden – The Ascent of F6 and On The Frontier ( NMC D190)

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4 Responses to Britten through the eyes of…Colin Matthews

  1. Liudmila Kovnatskaya says:

    Dear Colin, I was so happy reading your interview which is highly interesting to me in every line. Many thanks! (I noticed you met BB later than I did.) Hope to see you in mid-June. Now I am writing a preface to the Russian translation of your brother David’s book on BB. With very best wishes, Mila Kovnatskaya

  2. Véronique Borde says:

    There aren’t many comments on this interesting blog, so here I go and please excuse my English.

    Peter Grimes: I can’t understand why Britten’s librettos are so much discussed. Does anybody discuss Mozart’s librettos? Librettos are seldom masterpieces of literature. Schubert set to music good and bad poetry: does anybody say that a Lied is more beautiful than another because the text is by Goethe?

    Boulez may be a composers’ composer, but I can see no point in composing for composers and I still look of a music lover who listens to Boulez with pleasure. In my opinion – a music lover’s opinion – he cannot stand near a genius like Britten.

    Young Apollo: John Bridcut made a supposition about its withdrawal, but a more careful research seems to prove it otherwise: Britten agreed to re-examine the score of Young Apollo 15 years after its composition and he told Elisabeth Mayer: “I don’t expect a masterpiece”; he decided then to withdraw it for good. In 1963 he wished he had the courage to destroy the manuscripts of YA and AMDG (Letters from a Life V, p. 506-7). As Britten never wrote a minimalist piece again, it seems more likely that he was not happy with it from a musical viewpoint.

  3. Pingback: Eric Whitacre - Page 3

  4. Pingback: Proms premiere – Colin Matthews: String Quartet no.5 |

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