Audiences around the world have been joining in the celebrations of the centenary of English composer Benjamin Britten birth in 2013.
Why celebrate Britten? We’d like to share our thinking on the significance of Benjamin Britten as we were programming these concerts. We’ve chosen to include two of the Britten string quartets in this series and we’ve crafted two programmes around these quartets with works by composers who we know had a significant impact on Britten in his lifetime.
We personally find Britten inspiring as he is one of most original voices of the 20th century and his musical communication is powerful, direct and personal. He was a sensitive soul who expressed his response to the world and times around him through his music, directly affecting and touching audiences.
Britten’s opera Peter Grimes catapulted him to international fame, and his War Requiem expressed the deepest feelings of many listeners. However in his string quartets he creates atmospheres at once magical and deeply moving. The power of his vocal writing translates beautifully to the vocal quality of stringed instruments, and the structure and textures of these works are masterful and of piercing clarity.
An accomplished pianist, he began composing very early and developed quickly under the devoted mentorship of Frank Bridge, whom he met when he was eleven years old. He also closely studied the music of the masters before him and was particularly fond of all the composers whom we are featuring in our series. Purcell, Mozart and Schubert were his idols in their clarity and balance of expression.
He loved the rhythmic drive of Stravinsky’s music and we hear strong connections between the writing in the Concertino and Britten’s quartets. Hearing the Ravel String Quartet was one of the watershed moments in his compositional life, saying that he “could no more write the same way as before.”
Britten received many prizes and honors, including becoming a Companion of Honour and a member of the Order of Merit, his most cherished honor and only awarded to two composers prior – Elgar and Vaughan Williams. In 1974 he won the French government’s Ravel Prize and in 1976, the year of his death, he was made a life peer; the first musician ever to receive this honor. Despite this public recognition Britten said of himself:
“People sometimes seem to think that, with a number of works now lying behind, one must be bursting with confidence. It is not so at all. I haven’t achieved the simplicity I should like in my music, and I am enormously aware that I haven’t yet come up to the technical standards Bridge set me.”
Here are some comments from each of us about the repertoire we have chosen in this touring series. We hope that along with enjoying the concert experiences, you will join us in gaining a deeper understanding of Britten and his impact on the world of music.
Benjamin Britten – String Quartet no 1
Not even 30 when he wrote it, this piece feels like a truly confident statement of not just musical mastery, but maturity as well. As much as we might hear the influences of those composers Britten so loved, this work like so much of Britten from a very young age, remains thoroughly original and recognizable as the work of someone who is beyond mechanics and simply able to have great fun with the medium. No small task, considering who preceded him.
– Doug Beilman
Benjamin Britten – String Quartet no 3
Benjamin Britten stamp
This work has a transcendent quality. Playing it feels similar to playing late Beethoven; it feels like the story of a life, including innocence, adolescent naughtiness, adult trials and tribulations and the profound wisdom of a dying man. By the end of the work the listeners’ spirits are lifted up to another world.
– Rolf Gjelsten
Frank Bridge – Idyll No 1 Piece No 2 and 3
The three works we have chosen show wonderful variety of expression – the Idyll could be called pure Hollywood in the best sense of the word – sentiment sweeps players and listeners alike away! Then the waltz and ragtime of the two Pieces show him at his lighthearted best.
– Helene Pohl
Henry Purcell – Fantasias
The Fantasias of Purcell stun us with originality, daring, and, as the name suggests, fantasy. Poignant dissonances cry out amidst beautifully flowing lyricism. It’s no wonder that Britten was moved by Purcell’s music and based a good part of his Second String Quartet on one of these Fantasias.
– Rolf Gjelsten
Maurice Ravel – Quartet in F major
This is a piece I love returning to with its cool, crystal-clear opening, that rising scale in the cello line against an almost pentatonic-sounding violin melody, beautiful harmonic shifts and incredible elegance in its Impressionistic effects. Ravel features Spanish guitars on a hot afternoon in the pizzicato movement, followed by every violist’s dream, the gorgeous languid Très Lent and ending with explosive energy in Vif et Agité. Visual images float before my eyes just thinking about this piece!
- Gillian Ansell
Igor Stravinsky – Concertino
Igor Stravinsky - sketch by Picasso
When I was a teenager Stravinsky was my absolutely top favourite composer for several years. When you hear the Concertino you’ll see why – its infectious rhythms and sly wit would be up many a teenager’s alley – and we are sure it will amuse and delight kids of all ages.
– Helene Pohl
Our final thoughts are summarized by Gillian who says:
…Even more than looking forward to playing each individual piece on the series, I’m really excited about the juxtaposition of all these fascinating works which inspired Britten. It will be quite a revelation to experience each of the two programmes, trying to hear the works in the way that Britten might have and understand why he was so influenced by them.
Bravo! Britten – the New Zealand String Quartet’s 2013 tour to 7 centres around New Zealand from 30 August – 15 September.