Listening to Britten – The American Dream

The MS Axel Johnson, the ship on which Britten and Pears returned to England from America in 1942. Image courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Listening to Britten, on its voyage to take in the composer’s entire available recorded output chronologically, has reached the end of the American years.

This part of the listening has taken in 45 separate works, from tiny organ pieces and short settings of Beddoes through to Britten’s first stage work Paul Bunyan, the Violin Concerto, the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Piano Concerto and a number of shorter works for orchestra, two with the help of keyboard soloists, and the first of his three published String Quartets. All these works were written in the space of four years, in spite of illness in early 1940 and a compositional block in 1941.

The American years were something of a rollercoaster for a composer still in the relatively early stages of personal and musical development. When he first crossed the Atlantic with Peter Pears, Britten was just 24, and when he returned he was still only 28, but the advance in his personal life was marked. When he left he was single, captivated by recent developments with Wulff Scherchen; when he returned the life-long partnership with Pears was in its blossoming youth and he was finding a surer identity.

While in America the distinctive shape of Wystan Hugh Auden seemed to loom over Britten’s every move, perhaps even more of an artistic influence than Pears for a brief while. Usually this was a good thing, for the two collaborated in some memorable work, but as Britten drew towards the end of his American stay the poet was becoming a suffocating and increasingly restrictive presence. That Britten should sign off with the Hymn to St Cecilia, one of his most restful and beautifully proportioned works, belies the fraught nature of his mind under the mental strains of Auden’s intellectual demands. A more accurate representation of the period is Paul Bunyan, which Britten somehow pulled out from the fire to become a decent stage work, despite its wordiness and occasionally obscure allegory.

Britten with Auden in New York. Image courtesy of Britten 100

Musically, Britten returned to the UK a much more confident composer, one who could write fluently and quickly for orchestra and make a much bigger sound. The influence of composers such as Copland, Berg, Shostakovich and Mahler was serving him well, but crucially his own individual voice was still shining through. The sheer volume and scope of pieces like the Violin Concerto, the Sinfonia da Requiem, Ballad of Heroes, and Paul Bunyan show him flexing his muscles on a much larger scale, still confident of writing what he meant but not afraid, in the concerto at least, of showing some very intense emotions.

These emotions were coming through with greater clarity in the songs too, either explicitly in the rapture of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, or backhandedly in a sorrowful setting like the folksong arrangement The trees they grow so high. There was humour, too – The Crocodile, some of the choruses in Paul Bunyan and the Piano Concerto bearing that out, and there was what seemed like a sense of feeling his way in pieces like Young Apollo, the Scottish Ballad and An American Overture.

Yet what the American period seems to have achieved above all else is confirm to Britten his sense of identity. This was revealed to him in a flash when he discovered the poetry of George Crabbe, as he recounted in his written out acceptance speech for the Aspen prize, awarded to him in 1962:

“But the thing I am most grateful to your country for is this: it was in California, in the unhappy summer of 1941, that, coming across a copy of the Poetical works of George Crabbe in a Los Angeles bookshop, I first read his poem, Peter Grimes, and at the same time, reading a most perceptive and revealing article about it by E. M. Forster, I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked. I had become without roots, and when I got back to England six months later I was ready to put them down”.

Towards the conclusion of the speech, he added, “my music now has its roots, in where I live and work. And I only came to realise that in California in 1941”. Even while he and Pears were on the MS Axel Johnson he had in a sense returned home, having already begun ‘realising’ the music of Purcell, arranging British folksongs and finally returning to English church music in A Ceremony of Carols.

Britten, then, could be said to have left the UK a mature boy and returned a fully-fledged man. For that he most certainly had Pears to thank; Auden too on a lesser scale. But that statement also applies musically, with some of his less coherent thoughts now coming together to find a single form of expression. Far away he may have been at the time, but his music was gradually honing in like a searchlight on the Suffolk coast once again – and with Peter Grimes, it was about to reach its greatest point of focus yet.

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