Britten through the eyes of…Sandy Burnett

Sandy Burnett is a respected musician and broadcaster, who divides his time neatly between the practical disciplines of playing double bass and conducting, while also providing interviews, educational talks and revealing content on classical music. Sandy, who could be heard regularly on BBC Radio 3 in the 1990s, talks here about encounters with Britten’s music as a conductor, violinist, interviewer and listener. Quite a musical tapestry!

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

I can’t put my finger on exactly when the first encounter would be, but at school I definitely took part in a performance of Noye’s Fludde. I was involved with the National Youth Orchestra Of Scotland as well, and I had a very good start at a string school as a violinist in Glasgow on Saturday mornings. That was a really fantastic start in music, and that’s how I got to learn the repertoire on the inside.

The next Britten work I remember taking part in was Phaedra. I think it was a performance in Paisley, and it would have been about 1980, only five years or so after it was written. Those are my initial memories as a violinist, which was my way into music. I still do it for fun, but not professionally, before I gravitated – a word I use advisedly! – towards the double bass.

For me that was also the golden age of pop music, and disco (Chic!). I listened to John Peel, and to pop music on Radio 2. I kept the art of improvising through that, especially since I found the bass in the school cupboard aged 18.

You offer a program for newcomers to classical music called Classic Discovery. Do you think that is the sort of education of which Britten might have approved?

Well that’s a very flattering comparison, and I couldn’t put myself in the same bracket as Britten, but it’s true of Britten and of other British composers at that time in the UK that they devoted a lot of energy and time to working with amateurs.

If you look at the continent they didn’t have that same need and desire, so the amateur tradition in the UK is a very strong one. I particularly admire Britten for giving so much of his energy to amateurs, and to young people.
The Classic Discovery program came from a very different impulse. I’ve really gathered knowledge from my time as a practical musician as much as being a broadcaster. Lots of my friends aren’t really in to classical music and are mystified by it, I see them glaze over! But yet they listen to a program like Front Row and I hear their views on new plays, new films, new buildings and novels.

Lots of people don’t feel qualified to have an opinion on classical music, whereas in fact it is for normal people like you and me! A couple of people asked me to put something together as an introduction, and it’s really building up in a lovely way. I’ve written a book of the crash course series, and it’s growing all the time. I want to get to the position where I can do Discovery concerts, so that I can do a talk about Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony for instance, and conduct a complete performance in the second half.

Do you think it’s good that stations like BBC 6 Music are trying to encourage a bit of sharing across the genres, as they are in the Proms this year?

I think people today are more prepared to cross borders, to listen to a broader range of music, and the way we can now listen to music digitally is fantastic, just unbelievable. The more openings the better! It’s such an exciting time to be a consumer of music, and it would be interesting to see in 30 years time if that leads to a greater understanding. It might not, because of genres of music that require real investment and concentration.

Do you think Britten’s music reaches those that listen to other styles of music?

His real strength has got to be the vocal music I would say, the way he writes for voices is so imaginative. The folk song harmonisations are a case in point I think.

Classical music’s biggest problem is that it can seem quite remote and superficial. For instance I would say you either like the singing of Peter Pears or you don’t. He wouldn’t be my preferred Britten interpreter, even though so many roles were written for him!

I am very interested in how music progresses. In one hundred years time, what will be the pieces of Britten that we are still listening to, as opposed to the ones that we are listening to now? Ultimately we’re listening to Bach cantatas and passions because of what it means to us now, not what it meant then. With Britten, the idea of the misunderstood outsider in the operas has to endure, he captured that in a way that perhaps only Mahler did.

On the other hand, I feel bad about saying this, some of the educational pieces like Noye’s Fludde – even though they did it successfully at Aldeburgh this year – sounds very dated and very 1950s, with the chime bars and things. I think it’s more specific to that era.

Do you find it easier to introduce classical music in shorter segments rather than in whole, longer pieces?

Yes, but it’s a purely practical thing. In the courses I would love to talk more about Wagner, but there is such a long line. Even if you were to talk about the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, one of the most important pieces in Western classical music, it’s very hard to dip in and out of. I choose the pieces I talk about quite carefully, and it’s by no means comprehensive.

Any introduction to classical music has to leave a lot out, that’s just the way it is, but that’s not to say that the bits I’ve left out are not important. Everybody can take what they want as well, not everybody has to like everything! A lot of people struggle with music written in the last 50 years, you can see them fading away. That is an area that needs more time.

Somebody like Stockhausen would need much more than a two-minute clip, I would say. But I went to the recent production of Mittwoch up in Birmingham, and to be honest with you I didn’t really know what to expect, and I came away absolutely loving it! I was surprised by how welcoming, warm and unintimidating the staging was, it was brilliant.

How do you introduce Britten on the course?

I focus on two pieces in particular. One is the Hymn to St Cecilia, because it’s a great example of a fantastic choral piece on so many levels. For a start there are the incredible words by Auden, which are so rich in meaning. Secondly there is what Auden was trying to tell Britten through the words, of how he should conduct his life and handle his secret homosexuality. That’s the other element that is really incredible. Thirdly there is the music, which is so clever, but so singable, and so contemporary for 1942, at the same time. The opening for example is very diatonic on top, but the three parts all harmonise with themselves, while the bass part gently clashes against it. So it’s in the choral tradition but it’s also contemporary. The way that Britten juggles that is so clever, and if I only had to have one Britten piece it would be that one to be honest!

The other piece I talk about is Billy Budd. I often have this debate about what his greatest opera is. I came to opera quite late, so I’ve tried to go and see them all. Peter Grimes is the obvious one but I think Billy Budd is an absolutely astonishing work. I saw the Covent Garden production in 2000 with Eric Halverson as John Claggart, and it was absolutely terrifying.

In 2007 though I saw Ian Bostridge as Quint in The Turn of the Screw, and I think that is his greatest masterpiece in that it tells the story so well, but the musical layout, with the twelve-tone theme, is so incredibly clever. You sit there in the theatre, and you’re not aware of the layout, but it’s there. That is like Bach, who is my favourite composer of all, in the logic that underpins it. It’s done in such a way that you’re not aware of it being clever, it’s just there. And don’t you think it’s rare how intelligible the words are? There were subtitles when I went to see it, but you certainly didn’t need them!

You recently conducted The Company Of Heaven. How did that come about, and how was it received?

It is a very interesting work. I was first due to conduct it in Vancouver in 2009, but the financial crisis meant that it fell through. I pushed on with it as a local project, though, for the Bedford Park Festival in that year. I live in Shepherd’s Bush, on the border of Bedford Park, and was able to draft in the actors Patrick Malahide and Elizabeth McGovern, who of course is now in Downton Abbey.

The piece was designed for radio of course, but I wanted to make it work in the church we were performing it in, which was St Michael and All Angels. As a throw forward, I included the audience in the closing hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. It’s fantastic music, and very little known. I think having the actors in a concert performance integrates the music with the drama, it takes it on to a higher level and engages the listener in a different way.

Do you think we have reached a proper understanding of Britten as a person?

I think we’re arriving at it. I read Paul Kildea’s book, which is interesting, and I think he did the right thing in underplaying the Britten’s children angle, because that has been exaggerated in the past. It’s interesting for me because I am interviewing Humphrey Maud this week. He is one of ‘Britten’s children’, and John Bridcut interviewed him in his documentary. Humphrey is a neighbour of mine, and I play chamber music with him. He played lots of chamber music with Britten, as he was a friend of the Maud family, to whom Britten dedicated The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.

We wanted to know what was going on, and I think John Bridcut made very good sense out of that. Humphrey has nothing but positive things to say about Britten. When they came to go their separate ways, Humphrey wasn’t upset but Britten was very upset. The friendship did endure, though, through the 1950s and 1960s.

Were you worried that people would try to sensationalise Britten’s fondness for young people in his centenary year?

In Humphrey Carpenter’s book, some people feel that he went over the top, and there has been a certain amount of redressing the balance. The way Britten used boys was not always admirable – I think what he did to David Hemming was unforgivable, cutting him out when his voice broke as Miles in The Turn Of The Screw.

However when I talk to Humphrey Maud, who was actually there, he offers insights into how generous and kind Britten was. When he talked about music Britten would never contradict him, and would let him speak, which was rare then, and you could see how Humphrey would love that respect. He would talk about Beethoven, and Britten would say ‘he shouts a lot!’ but he wouldn’t contradict him. He said also about how Britten was an amazing accompanist, and that this powerful figurehead of British music making was actually extremely selfless as a musician.

What is your personal favourite in his output and why?

As well as the Hymn to St Cecilia, I love Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. I love Death In Venice, too, but it is still rather dark!

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

My only frustration is that I wish he had embraced the establishment more, rather than staying at Aldeburgh, but I can see why he wouldn’t have wanted to. He was offered the job at Covent Garden of course, which would have been amazing for English musical life but maybe not so much him as a composer. I regret he spent more time with the English Opera Group, as he could have written a lot more for the stage I think.

I conducted the Sinfonietta once, and never got the tempo transition between the second and third movements right, it was very hard! It is an amazing piece, though, influenced by Schoenberg, and European ways of thinking. I think when he wrote it Britten was battling against that rather staid way of doing things that existed at the Royal College of Music at the time.

My biggest regret is that he was right to plough his own furrow, but it was a shame that he was so anti-establishment. I think he could have enriched English musical life even more if he had come to London more.
I do come back to the pieces that I love though, and thinking about it, another piece I saw was the String Quartet No.3, which I think is amazing, very fragmentary – a beautiful piece.

Visiting Sandy Burnett’s homepage reveals the variety of musical disciplines in which he is currently engaged. These include appearances at the Burton Bradstock Festival from August 13-16, where he will interview Humphrey Maud in Britten: The Man I knew.

More information on his Classic Discovery program can be found here, including a Podcast for Sinfini on Beethoven the Revolutionary

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One Response to Britten through the eyes of…Sandy Burnett

  1. Pingback: Discovering Britten - Sandy Burnett

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