Britten, composer of music "from the heart", feted at 100

TUNSTALL, England Sat Nov 23, 2013 12:01am IST

Scallop (2003) by sculptor Maggi Hambling, a tribute to composer Benjamin Britten, is seen on Aldeburgh beach, eastern England November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Scallop (2003) by sculptor Maggi Hambling, a tribute to composer Benjamin Britten, is seen on Aldeburgh beach, eastern England November 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Olivia Harris

TUNSTALL, England (Reuters) - The voices of 650 youngsters singing Benjamin Britten's "Friday Afternoons" song cycle filled the concert hall he built in eastern England and wafted out over the Internet on Friday as the world celebrated the centenary of Britain's most famous modern composer.

Some 100,000 schoolchildren singing in locations across Britain were hooked up via the web with performances of the same songs by children who kicked off the birthday celebration in Melbourne, Australia, at 0300 GMT and were to bring down the curtain in Santa Monica, California, at 2200 GMT.

"One of the things I liked about the songs is they're slightly old fashioned, so it makes me feel sort of special in a way, I don't know why," said Ellie Robertson, 9, one of the participating singers from nearby Ixworth Primary School.

The various versions of the cycle were posted on a website set up by Aldeburgh Music, which runs the Snape Maltings hall Britten founded. The BBC will play Britten's music live and from recordings all weekend on its classical music station Radio 3.

Britten died in 1976, a few years after a failed heart operation, and for many composers that might mark the beginning of their reputation fading.

But not for this native of Suffolk, where he built the Snape Maltings concert hall and is buried in nearby Aldeburgh beside his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears.

After a recent performance in London's cavernous Royal Albert Hall of Britten's pacifist "War Requiem", written for symphony orchestra, three soloists, a boy's choir and a 250-person choir, conductor Semyon Bychkov said the work still had the impact of its premiere half a century ago.

"It will never lose its power," Bychkov told Reuters.

WIDE APPEAL

Britten was nothing if not prolific, having composed more than 1,000 pieces in his lifetime.

Some of those, including his operas "Peter Grimes", "Billy Budd" and "Death in Venice", the "War Requiem", his works for cello and his "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" are mainstays of opera houses and concert halls around the world and if anything have become more popular since his death.

What performers and musicians say they find special about his music is that it appeals to people across the spectrum - from those looking for music that runs deep but also to audiences that can take it or leave it.

"Britten writes from the heart, and if you play him from the heart and you set it up right with the audience, it goes right to their hearts," British cellist Matthew Barley said.

Barley has been touring Britain since January, playing Britten's Third Cello Suite in 100 concerts and workshops at locations ranging from a parlour in Sheffield to a lighthouse on the Dover cliffs to inmates of a prison in Glasgow.

"You could cynically say they were a captive audience but I do know from warders there that if they have a performer they don't like they make sure they heckle them - and they were absolutely silent," Barley said.

Britten is, in effect, a "crossover" composer who was completely in tune with the turbulent changes in music during the 20th century but at the same time attached to the tried and trusted values of tonality and key.

"I would say that Britten's music has a much more vivid emotional range than a lot of music that is popular," said Philip Rupprecht, author of "Rethinking Britten". "It's popular music but it's not easy music. It digs very deep."

He also was a perfectionist who, according to Paul Kildea, a conductor and writer of another recent Britten biography, helped transform musical culture in Britain from "good enough" to requiring the same high standards that were in place in the United States and continental Europe during his lifetime.

"He was what I call the 20th century's preeminent musician. He was the absolutely consummate musician and people always balk at that and say what about (Igor) Stravinsky. But I say Britten was a much better performer than Stravinsky, even though Stravinsky's music attempts things that were more complex."

Britten was homosexual at a time when to be so was illegal, and he also had a strong affection for children, especially pre-pubescent boys.

One of the boy sopranos who sang in Britten's chamber opera "The Turn of the Screw" has described sleeping in the same bed with Britten - but of the composer never having touched him.

"There are a lot of middle-aged men now who say he was nothing but like a wonderful uncle," said Colin Matthews, a conductor and composer who worked with Britten in the last years of his life.

"I think Britten had a sexual attraction but he kept it completely controlled."

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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