Listening to Britten – Suite from Death in Venice, Op.88b


[title not known], from Death In Venice (1972) by John Piper. (c) The Piper Estate. Image used courtesy of the Tate Gallery.

Suite from Death in Venice, Op.88b – arranged by Steuart Bedford from the opera in two acts, Op.88b (December 1971 – March 1973, Britten aged 59. Completed by Bedford in 1984)

Summons to Venice –
Overture to Venice –
First Beach Scene –
Tadzio –
I love you –
Pursuit –
Second Beach Scene and Death

Dedication not known
Duration 27′

Background and Critical Reception

The Death in Venice Suite was not put together by Britten but was fashioned by Steuart Bedford, who conducted the opera’s premiere and first recording on Decca. It seems possible that Bedford spoke about the idea of extracting a suite for orchestra alone for concert performance, though Pears it was who suggested the idea to Bedford. In his booklet notes for the first recording, Bedford describes that ‘what actually emerged ten years later was not a selection of individual numbers but a kind of operatic symphony which flows logically and continuously through the action of the opera.’

Looking back on his achievement, Bedford notes, ‘The shape of the suite was dictated by purely musical considerations and it was only later that it was realised that a natural dramatic flow had been achieved.’ There are only two bars of music not composed by Britten – used to join the end of the overture with the first beach scene.

The first performance of the suite was at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1984, when it was performed on 13 June.

The music plays for approximately 27 minutes without a break, and brings together the orchestral passages of the opera with only a number of very short linking passages. In a sense it tells the story of Aschenbach’s torment and obsession with Tadzio without any words, though as Britten commentators agree it also reveals the vivid portraits of Venice through music.

Thoughts

It is fascinating listening to this suite without any vocals, for it feels as if the camera has pulled back a little from its incredibly intense focus on Aschenbach and Tadzio to give us a bit more of Venice the city. We travel on the waters by gondola, experience the warm Adriatic climate, but also get a sense of the impending doom as experienced in the cholera outbreak.

There are of course the signs of Aschenbach’s breakdown too, made manifest through fractious solo contributions that reach their height when the soloists from the orchestra evoke the small band that Aschenbach encounters.

The music feels quite claustrophobic early on, and even without vocals there is a very strong sense of the moods of Aschenbach, if not the man himself, and these hover just behind Britten’s picturesque portrayals of the city. The arrival in Venice is still thrilling, with the bells and bright, roomy brass and percussion.

If anything this suite throws the parallels with Shostakovich’s Symphony no.15 into even sharper focus, bringing out the vivid writing for percussion that can often sound like the end of the last movement. The far eastern influences are clearer, too, with some fascinating ripple effects and distorted sound. Some of the more repetitious passages for percussion, with vibraphone to the fore, invite very brief parallels to ‘minimalist’ music – which after all took some of its lead from the gamelan music of Bali.

Recordings used

English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Chandos)

A colourful portrait of Venice is offered by the English Chamber Orchestra under Bedford, recorded in 1984, the year of the suite’s premiere. Since then the work has not been recorded for commercial release, though it is on occasion performed in concert.

Spotify

Steuart Bedford and the English Chamber Orchestra can be heard here

Also written in 1973: Richard O’Brien – The Rocky Horror Show

Next up: Canticle V: The Death of Narcissus, Op.89

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5 Responses to Listening to Britten – Suite from Death in Venice, Op.88b

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I value what you’ve given us all on this site more every time I come to it. In this instance, your reference to parallels with Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony is of special interest. These two fine composers appeared to have communicated with one another on a number of levels, didn’t they? (I recall reading that the fourth movement of Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 was an homage to Shostakovich, and, indeed, Shostakovich seems to be very present in that movement. I’ll definitely look forward to your post on that string quartet.)

    • Thank you, that’s very kind.
      I’m especially looking forward to that piece – and also to Britten himself conducting Shostakovich’s Symphony no.14 – and playing the piano in the composer’s Cello Sonata with Mstislav Rostropovich. Some fascinating parallels are coming through!

  2. joe bryce says:

    I have been listening to Shostakovich # 14 today and noticed ‘Les Illuminations’ in the string writing in Apollinaire settings, while ‘Nocturne’ is in the cyclical return of opening music, except that represents death in the Shostakovich as compared to sleep in the Britten. Of course both of them were drawing on Mahler.

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