Britten through the eyes of…Fiona Talkington

Fiona Talkington is a presenter at the BBC Radio 3 show Late Junction, but can also be heard at the station’s live events on a regular basis. A major part of her wide ranging musical taste is the music of Scandinavia and Iceland, and Late Junction gives her the opportunity to showcase her many and varied musical discoveries from these countries. For this interview we talked about the impact of Benjamin Britten’s music in her life, his concerns for humanity and the cultural role played by Late Junction.

Can you remember your first encounter with Britten?

I thought that you would ask me that, and I’m pretty sure it has to be The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, which I’m sure it is for so many people, and I was trying to look yesterday for the LP I’m sure was the household copy, with Peter And The Wolf on the other side. I’m sure that would have been my first encounter. It’s amazing orchestral writing, this big tune that you couldn’t get out of your head once you’d heard it, and of course it wasn’t really Britten’s, but the way you could be taken on that guide around the orchestra as if it was for children, it was approachable and fun. Years later, knowing orchestral musicians, it’s something that belongs to all of our heritage. I’m also pretty sure that at school there were performances of Noye’s Fludde, and bits of Britten I remember the older girls’ choir sing – bird impersonations and things. I thought, “That’s really cool, I’d like to do that!”

Have you always had exposure to a wide variety of music in your life?

Yes, always. I grew up with music being a very important part of my life. I started piano lessons at four, I always wanted to play it, but my father had been in the army band, and played every brass instrument, but I never heard him play. He and my mother would sing, and my mother was Irish and would sing folk songs and she loved singers like Joan Baez, so that was my introduction to folk and popular song. I had a predictable route through the piano grades, and I suppose my first ‘falling in love’ was Beethoven – and I’m still totally in love with him, he just spoke to my heart – and still does. Although people think I’m in to weird stuff, because I present Late Junction, Beethoven is alongside me all the time!

If you consider the strangeness of late Beethoven quartets alongside free improv. jazz, for instance, these are sounds that are turning our heads and hearts upside down, it’s for us to get into and explore! It’s the rich backdrop of my life, and it’s not something you have to understand straight away, you can grow into it. That’s what is so wrong with the education system today, it’s tick boxes and not allowing people to develop and hear lots of things. I was at a London Jazz Festival concert last year, one that brought together Ensemble Denada from Norway, and Beats & Pieces from Manchester, two young groups, and the phenomenal energy of these musicians – if every child in the country could see the enthusiasm, the energy and the sense of fun, and the brilliance of these people, there’s your musical education, that’s what it’s about! That love, passion and enthusiasm that drives any of us to anything that we’re interested in.

Turning to Britten, would you say his music, along with some of the calculated elements behind it, carries a powerful impact all of its own?

Yes, and I think it’s the power of Britten that I found when later on I came to things like the War Requiem. I defy anyone not to be humbled and deeply moved by this music, to read those words and know how passionately Britten, Auden and Wilfred Owen felt, the immense feelings for humanity and the hatred of violence – that’s behind all this music. Yes, there are fantastic musicians and composers, and they have a phenomenal understanding of what all that takes, but they were all human beings – they all ate, drank and slept like the rest of us. Maybe for me that is the most important thing about Britten today, his absolute abhorrence of senseless violence, his compassion and uncompromising belief and what is right and beautiful about the world.

I was thinking if Britten was an angry young man in his thirties or forties today, what would be his passions? We look at things in more recent history like the Iraq war, and Afghanistan, and all the terrorism, the things that occupy defence issues today, but I think that he would have been marching for the NHS, with his passion for people. It sounds a bit arrogant for me to put words into Britten’s mouth when he’s not here, but what is happening in our country, where the people who are defenceless, are the sick and the elderly, people who can’t fight for themselves. They are not being fought for by others. I think he would stand up and fight for the welfare, and the NHS, and say look, all this is happening abroad, but look at your own country and save it!

I think when you listen to the War Requiem, you realise this is a man who cared passionately and was able to put that into that thing that we love, music, to put it in a context that just churns us up. Can you remain unchanged when you listen to the War Requiem? No, and I feel I should be out there and saving what’s good. I think we’re at a crossroads, we can save or let go the values of so many things that are to do with compassion and caring about people.

Then you look back at the poetry and the poets and the people he loved, and Auden in particular. I brought in a poetry book that belonged to my mother, and she read this Auden poem, the first one in the book. I remember on the eve of the Iraq war, reading Auden’s 1st September, 1939, where it says:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

It’s about what’s going to happen, what could happen to our world. We’re just sitting here and people are going home to their wives – but who are we? It’s an incredible choice of words, later in the poem, where he writes, “We must love one another or die”. I totally understand the Britten – Auden thing, and that’s what Britten’s music so often means to me, his feelings about the world and other people inform my enjoyment of his music.

Do you like English music in general, thinking for instance of Elgar, Vaughan Williams or Holst?

I love Holst! He is such a fascinating composer. Although he’s English, his influences – the Sanskrit and Eastern influences in the opera Savitri for example – there’s this Englishness but he makes these wonderful concoctions and collaborations of ideas. I’ve been fascinated by him for a long time, and pieces like the Hymn Of Jesus, which is hardly ever performed. I thought they were funky rhythms when I first heard them, before I ever got into Bulgarian rhythms! I thought it was fun, and different, and he stretched those rhythmical boundaries for me. The part songs are beautiful too.

Vaughan Williams, I remember studying the Fifth Symphony at A-level. I love the symphonies but I don’t think of those as particularly English. There is something else, that sense of foreboding and beauty. Elgar I have never had a love affair with. I don’t know why, it just hasn’t happened – he’s too solid for me, but then maybe I don’t know enough!

Are there any Britten pieces you find more difficult to listen to?

I have a bit of a problem with his folksong arrangements, there is something about them that doesn’t feel so right when set alongside the other folk music I listen to.

For many people you are their introduction to Radio 3 if they approach from the perspectives of electronic or jazz music. Do you think it is important the station keeps its links with types of music that border classical music in that way?

Yes, I do. An awful lot of people don’t just listen to one genre. You have something you relax too, or something you want to go out and hear. There are many bands you hear live because of that difference between live and recorded music. People experience music in so many different ways, and I always say that Late Junction is a program that grows out of Radio 3. It’s not something we impose on it, to tick a box, but Radio 3 is about cherishing and nurturing the richness of the arts in general, and the classical music in the broadest sense.

If we listen to Bartók, then do we not also listen to how the folk songs that influenced him, how they are performed in Hungarian villages? The folk music that influenced Canteloube is another example. Every composer hears other music; Tchaikovsky wove street songs into his music. Many rock musicians had classical training! There isn’t this divide. People like interesting, well performed music, and one of the things people often say to me is, “I don’t like everything that you play, but I want to hear it, I want to know what’s out there and make my own mind up”.

If we were a station that had a rigid playlist then you’re not giving people the opportunity to grow and learn. Of course you’re not going to like everything, you don’t want everything in a gallery to put on your living room wall, but you want to be part of the artistic world. I know that a lot of people listen to Late Junction because they want to be surprised. They haven’t got to like everything, but they know there is going to be something a bit unpredictable. In so much broadcasting, never has there been a time where so much is available! I do think that Radio 3 is this fantastic offering of cultural richness. It can be Beethoven, or it can be weird electronica, but it’s all performed by people with an absolute commitment to what they’re doing, with a belief that music is an essential part of all of our lives.

Late Junction can be that entry point for a folk music enthusiast, and then I’ll play some Britten or Purcell, so people will like that and try the breakfast program or something. There is room for everybody. On 6 Music Stuart Maconie is such a believer in contemporary classical music, and Jarvis is not against putting a bit of Arvo Pärt alongside something that he plays, but you’re not going to get that in depth knowledge. You’re not going to get a bit of Alfred Schnittke on Radio 1, but there is this very broad context on Radio 3 that allows people to hear things, and to change lives!

Is there a weight of expectation on you to give people something new?

It’s a privilege really, because people have got high expectations. When we started 13 years ago, people often said they didn’t know that sort of music existed. Late Junction has often had a big influence on people and their listening, and giving radio play to music, labels and artists who would not normally have got that. Now you have got things like Stuart Maconie and Cerys – it’s almost as if Late Junction gave permission for those programmes to happen. It’s not that people weren’t playing interesting music before – people talk about John Peel and all the innovations he made – but I get sent a lot of music, and hear a lot of music, and it’s about keeping an eye open. We have three nights a week but I could easily fill every night!

What might be an ideal Britten piece for Late Junction?

In the early days I just had to play what for me is essential Britten, the Sonnet and Epilogue from the
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It’s an extraordinary moment. Those final notes from the horn, I did a program called Mining The Archive several years ago on Dennis Brain, and was moved by the extraordinary playing, and a life cut short. Dennis Brain playing that Epilogue is unlike anything else at all, I couldn’t be without that.

Peter Grimes, too – such an incredibly moving story, and the music complements it, and makes you feel passionately. There is that sense of place, too, which I think is one of the most important things about Britten. The War Requiem, which I’ve gone on about, that’s essential listening, and the Cello Suites. With solo cello we always think Bach, but here you can sit on the cellist’s shoulder and go through each note, and it doesn’t come easy at first. That’s very important music, it’s challenging and you have to stick with it.

I remember, too, being fascinated by Gloriana, and in particular the Courtly Dances, which used to be played a lot on Radio 3. We don’t hear it so much now but it’s very relevant this year! I’m surprised too by the amount I don’t know – well I’m not surprised, as it seems with Britten that the more you know the more you don’t know if you see what I mean! There are little songs, the canticles, where you think, “How can I not have known that?” I am glad there is still so much there to be discovered.

I was talking to Chris Watson, the sound recordist, who did a residency at Britten’s house at the beginning of the year, and he did a soundscape for Britten. He is one of the great recordists in the world; he does a lot with David Attenborough. He talked about Britten going for a walk along the shores, and the importance of that walk and hearing the wind and the rustling, and how that struck him. It really struck me how important it is that whatever you’re doing you need to take that time.

A biography of Fiona can be found on the BBC’s Late Junction page

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One Response to Britten through the eyes of…Fiona Talkington

  1. Pingback: An introduction to Britten and the folksong – a new take on old music? | Good Morning Britten

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