Sunday, April 02, 2006

Benjamin Britten and English composers

UPDATE: I see that an expert has chimed in and torn the Crescat contributor a new one. I think the post itself at C.S. is not pretentious; and making a couple of nationality errors is not a mortal sin. The post just sells English music short. I'm glad the commentor notes some of the same composers I came up with.

Over at Crescat is a good post about Britten. It is, however, important to take the opening about English music being so lame with a grain of salt. Sudeep does not, for example, mention R. Vaughan Williams. It is easy to consider RVW to be just the almost new-agey composer of Tallis; but his symphonies got progressively odder and more powerful, following an arc not dissimilar to Carl Nielsen damaged-affirmation of life. RVW's Concerto for Four Hands just seems to course forwards for minute upon ecstatic minute. His chestnust The Lark Ascending is almost impossible to overplay because of its internal logic, like Barber's Adagio.

If I were to choose the most powerful five seconds of any choral symphony, I would choose the entrance of what seems like a million voices in Vaughan Williams Sym. No. 2, "A Sea Symphony," when from the orchestra's and tympani's madness springs the line, "Behold -- the sea!" I believe the text is from Walt Whitman.

A close second for best-choral-five-seconds is by another English composer, William Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast," the tale of a Babylonian king and captor of the Jews. This is the setting of Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. / We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. / For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?
Suddenly, during the king's senseless revelry, a ghostly hand appears, writing words on the wall: "and these were the words that were written there: Mene, mene, tekel upharsin." Only Daniel can interpret them: "You have been weighed in the balance, and found wanting." That night, the king's servants rise up, and the music swells, and during a grand pause the king is......"SLAIN!" The chorus screaming this word gives me goosebumps everytime.

I do not think Elgar needs defending: his choral works The Apostles, The Kingdom, The Dream of Gerontius, his operas Caractacus and others, his Cockaigne Overture, and a hundred other pieces--all are beautiful and near-perfect. Edmund Rubbra is an often overlooked composer: his Sym. No. 2 is one of the strongest of the 20th century, and his string quartets are unique and gem-like. Frederick Delius can charm almost as much as RVW. Arnold Bax had a brief surge of interest, and deserves another. Gustav Holst's works have tremendous merit well past The Planets: think of The Mystic Trumpeter, another Walt Whitman setting; his St. Paul's Suite is in the genre of great works that can be played by school orchestras (if this seems a sad or uninteresting field, consider that Dvorak's Sym. No. 9 and his Festival Overture also fit here). Percy Grainger was doing crazy things well before John Cage. Malcolm Arnold's style does for the Celtic lands what Sibelius did for the north; John Tavener can out Part Arvo; some of his important works actually precede Part's equivalents.

In short, Britten does not stand head-and-shoulders above a poor field; English music can stand on its own without resorting to imports like Handel or going back to Purcell. Perhaps Marginal Revolution's point here about distinguishing between an age or a country's peak moment or composer and considering, rather, the overall quality. England performs very well in a broad variety of genres, including those the English have invented.

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