Britten at The Red House, (c) The Britten-Pears Foundation
As a complement to Around Britten in 80 Songs, which kicks into gear next week, I have enlisted a few friends from the pop side of the fence to listen to a selection of Britten’s music and give me their verdicts.
First to take the challenge is Jamie Sellers, who is not only a brilliant and highly valued friend but a constant source of new and invigorating music! Here is his (self-penned) biography:
Jamie Sellers is a freelance writer. He was born in the 1960s, and bought his first 45rpm record aged seven. It was by Slade. He has been listening to music ever since, and enjoys Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits, Al Green and Ray Charles, Ennio Morricone and John Barry, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. In the 1980s he co-edited four issues of Idiot Strength fanzine with his friends Johnno and Gary, but hated selling them at gigs. He has been published by NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, City Limits, Zigzag, and The Guardian Guide, and had work appear in Guinness Rockopedia and The Rough Guide to Rock. He has also written extensively about Queens Park Rangers football club, less often about film, and just the once about Goan cuisine. Current projects include playing bass guitar in the band Cheeseburger, and preparing a children’s book about a naughty dog. He lives in Brighton, East Sussex, with a very patient woman and a Welsh Terrier, and dies once a fortnight, in Shepherds Bush, west London. He still likes Slade.
So now you have an idea about Jamie, let me list the music I gave to him to listen to. It was designed to be a postcard of Britten’s musical career from start to finish over two hours – an admittedly near-impossible task, but one which I thought was important for this particular brief. I couldn’t realistically manage opera excerpts out of context! The music was:
‘Beware’; Simple Symphony; 4 Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; Night Mail; Nocturnal for solo guitar; Serenade for tenor, horn and strings; The Lincolnshire Poacher; Cello Sonata (2nd movement); War Requiem (Dies irae); Suite for harp (1st movement); Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A Time There Was’; Phaedra; String Quartet no.3 (last mvt)
Here is the story in Jamie’s words:
“The Blogger’s brief was (relatively) clear. He’d send me some Benjamin Britten music, and ask that I pen some words on it…
Whatever I like? Seemingly, yes. Sounds straightforward enough. I’ve written often about music in the past, on rock in the broadest sense, and I stopped doing so only when I couldn’t be bothered any more with the sense of competition. Music isn’t about competition. I’ve also listened to classical music, but with the curiosity (and the ear) of someone very much brought up on popular music. If I learned to enjoy half an hour of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, or to appreciate the language of film composition (works probably never intended to be consumed as one suite of audio, but often thrilling and unpredictable all the same), it was because of its excitement, sometimes its beauty, usually (with the odd exception that proves the rule, as in anything in life), by finding some raw emotion in there.
Now I abhor the use of the word ‘journey’ to describe anything other than literally travelling from A to B, but I think it’s fair to say anyone who is exposed to music from an early age (it was in my house via my older siblings’ Beatles and Shadows records, from the radio being on all day – and less memorably my parents’ Max Bygraves collection), will very quickly start to make positive connections, the more music they hear, even if choices do become more considered with time. A does lead to B, and C and so on, and if you’re musically curious, God help you if you start listening to jazz. Before you know it, you’re off on a journey of a lifetime, always looking for something fresh, be it comfortingly familiar, or disconcertingly different. Something to light your pipe, if you will.
So to come back to the classics (he said, conveniently bagging up hundreds of years of music in one go), I suppose it’s somewhere I have never had the patience to spend a lot of time… Prokofiev, Erik Satie, Mussorgsky, and yes, Carl Orff, all composed works that earned a place in popular culture in the world I was growing up in, and I occasionally found it possible to take those bite-sized pieces of chocolate box classics and listen to works as a whole. I just never made a habit of it. When I first saw Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’, I was captivated by the use of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and it caused me to seek it out. A hundred years on, I still haven’t entirely got to grips with ‘The Rite of Spring’. ‘The Planets’, yeah no problem. Some Chopin solo piano… yes, you’ve more or less got me pegged.
But Mr Britten’s work had passed me by, even though my day job keeps me well aware of many of the world’s leading opera companies and orchestras’ respective repertoires, of events like the Aldeburgh Festival, and I have been turned into a birthday and anniversary nut of worrying proportions. Because of this, I knew long ago the Britten centenary was coming, and I appreciated its significance, if only from a distance. To read any of the online potted biographies of the man, it’s impossible not to express some degree of awe at the breadth of his work, and at his dedication to it. But these two discs I hold in my hand… a mere taster, spanning his entire career. How very daunting. Reading The Blogger’s confession that he doesn’t claim to fully understand all of Britten’s music is a comfort. Even more so after playing it all the way through for the very first time…”
To be continued in part two tomorrow!