Britten from scratch part 2: Jamie Sellers

Britten playing tennis 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. This is the second part of Jamie Sellers‘ experiences with Britten’s music, following on from his introduction published a day previously. Now he talks about the music itself, which by way of reminder is the following:

‘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)

“Working all the way through several times, starting with Beware!, and ending with the late String Quartet No.3 (last mvt), I was by turns touched, irritated, downright annoyed, or confused, while all the while trying to comprehend the sheer scope of the music.

In the end, and in order to give due attention to the music that affected me, I had to perform an edit. A partial amputation, if you like. Out! Out with the solo singers! Every last one of them. Perhaps more than any instrument – alright, leave the bagpipes (please) – the human voice can single-handedly make or break a listening experience. Never mind the strange and quirky piano figures on some of the solo (duet?) performances, the voices hurtle like a spiked bowling ball through every sung piece. Perhaps I was over-exposed to Harry Secombe’s Gooning as a child. Certainly it’s the accursed hollering that keeps me away from the opera. There you go, a matter of taste. (I really tried with War Requiem, because clearly there is so much going on here, and this is a weighty one by any stretch of the imagination. Oh how I tried. Alas…)

I keep coming back to the Simple Symphony. In Boisterous Bouree I hear shades of Zbigniew Preisner’s film music – the way every staccato shard of violin tears another piece of your heart away (“you’ve got it all back-to-front, you clown!”, I hear them chorus). And Sentimental Sarabande is just gorgeous. Probably my single favourite bit of Britten here. I will be returning to this for sure – probably the most melodically obvious, or obviously melodic – of all I’ve been exposed to. Is that like saying Octopus’ Garden is your favourite Beatles song?

Peter Grimes I already knew a little about. I should like the opportunity to sit facing the North Sea, the Sea Interludes whirling around my head. Each piece is hugely evocative, be it calming or overwhelmingly dramatic. Storm just conjures images of JMW Turner’s terrifying seascapes.

The Cello Sonata (2nd movement) is another very visual piece of music, restless and unresolved, that makes me want to be able to complete the picture. And Suite for Harp (1st movement), is another. Am I listening to a solo instrument? I’m totally absorbed by its twists and turns, how incredibly expressive its moods. And then it’s gone! So brief! More please!

I avoided doing too much advance research on the music contained herein, instead trying to glean what I could from what I heard. After all, it needs to stand up on those terms. But I did swot up on one or two – probably unreliable – online sources, regarding the Suite on English Folk Tunes, having initially failed to make any connection between what I know of traditional English songs and what I was hearing. Scarcely any wiser after a dozen listens, I found them – on face value – probably the most complex, or at least the most difficult for me to grasp – of all Britten’s instrumental music. I’ll get back to you on these… I know there’s something there. I. Just. Don’t. Know. What. It. Is.

The final morsel on the second disc, the aforementioned String Quartet No. 3 (last mvt), shares with the cello and harp interludes that curious heightened sense of atmosphere, leaving me in this instance, as the last movement, not to wonder where it would go, but where it had been on its way. I’m on safer ground here, I think. The music, while unpredictable, has a logic about it that I can understand, but still with an eerie, sometimes hypnotic quality, the long notes and sparing plucked strings of its final minutes particularly lovely.

And that leaves me to refer back to earlier in this chronological, bespoke set, and Night Mail. Really, what’s not to like? A child would get it. If most pop songs are poetry put to music, what of reciting poetry over music? Not something in practice I’ve ever been overly fond of, save for the slightly more contemporary work of The Last Poets, John Cooper Clarke or Linton Kwesi Johnson. But the urgency of Auden’s words in Night Mail are matched so beautifully by the restless, perpetually driving force of the musical backing. I’m on that train. I am that mailman. Feel the speed, and never take the mailman for granted.
Good lord, what a lot of Benjamin Brittens there are.”

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