Thursday, October 17, 3:45pm, Hemmle Recital Hall
“For Peter: Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets and the Influence of Peter Pears”
Anne Kissel, State University of New York, Fredonia
Benjamin Britten and the tenor Peter Pears enjoyed a close collaboration and personal relationship that lasted nearly forty years, from the late 1930’s until the composer’s death in 1976. Throughout his career, Britten composed songs and opera roles for Pears, with the tenor often closely involved in the process of composition. For decades the two appeared together in recital, and thus the songs composed for Pears were conceived not only with Pears’ voice and artistry in mind, but also for their unique, personal collaboration. My research, conducted at the Britten-Pears Library in 2009, explores the ways in which Benjamin Britten’s relationship with Peter Pears influenced the genesis of the song cycles Britten composed for their duo. The evidence suggests that Britten’s development as a song composer was directly shaped by changes in Pears’ singing, Britten’s growing understanding of his singer’s capabilities, and the shared experiences of the two men both on and off the stage.
At the time that Britten began to compose the Michelangelo Sonnets, Pears was undergoing significant changes in his singing approach due to studies with a new teacher in New York City. Their correspondence shows Pears working hard to meet the intense demands of his composer, while rewrites in the autograph score show that Britten was learning along with Pears about the nature of the singing voice, and Pears’ voice in particular. Pears’ recordings from the early 1940’s show the singer at his absolute best in terms of operatic sound and dramatic capabilities. Finally, the poems chosen by Britten for this cycle, most of which were written by Michelangelo for his supposed male lover, Tommaso Cavalieri, are passionate love poems that were laden with personal meaning for these two men at the very beginning of their relationship.
I will be assisted by tenor Joe Dan Harper for a complete performance of Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo at the lecture’s conclusion.
PAPER SESSION 1 – Unifying the Cycles
Friday, October 18, 9:00am, Hemmle Recital Hall
“Anthologizing Christmas: A Boy Was Born as Performance, Scholarship, and Product”
Kevin Salfen, University of the Incarnate Word
Three of Benjamin Britten’s anthology cycles—that is, cyclic works for which the composer himself created the poetry anthology—share Christmas as their theme: Thy King’s Birthday (1931), A Boy Was Born (1932-3), and Ceremony of Carols (1942). When Britten conceived Thy King’s Birthday, there was scant precedent for writing anthology cycles. Elgar’s Sea Pictures (1897-9) is probably the first clear example, though from the 1910s through the 1930s the approach was adopted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, and Arthur Bliss, all of whom taught at the Royal College of Music when Britten was a student there. None of these precedents has Christmas as its theme, however, so Britten may have been the first composer to create such works.
I propose two additional precedents for Britten’s Christmas-themed anthology cycles. One is the Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw, and first published in 1928. The other is the gift book, typically an illustrated anthology of prose or poetry. Christmas was a favorite organizing theme of these gift books from their inception in the 1820s, and, as the name implies, they were often given as presents.
In this paper I explore how these three precedents—previous anthology cycles by British composers, the Oxford Book of Carols specifically, and the Christmas gift book generally—inform A Boy Was Born. This exploration situates Britten’s piece variously as a work in an overtly English performance tradition, as a scholarly endeavor tied to an academic institution, and as a product in a marketplace.
“Britten’s Fantastic Slippery Semitone: Motivic Intertextuality in The Poet’s Echo Op.76 and Serenade Op. 31″
Clare Eng, Belmont University
Britten wrote a number of song cycles that compose bouquets of poems around a central theme. In these works, he often uses motives to forge intertextual relationships. This paper discusses the pitch-class motif of a descending semitone, which I nickname Britten’s slippery semitone. This motif is not unique to Britten, but he masterfully manipulates it in his music. I consider the motif in The Poet’s Echo, op. 76 (1965) and Serenade, op. 31 (1943). In The Poet’s Echo, Britten uses a lonely persona to weave together poems by Aleksandr Pushkin. The first song, “Echo,” describes a frustrated poet who seeks but finds no response. It also introduces the slippery semitone, realized as FE. In the last song, “Lines,” Britten recalls the motif in transposition, suggesting that the poet has either found his desired response or begun losing his mind. In Serenade, Britten relates poems by different poets and on different levels of the work. The third song, “Elegy,” sets William Blake’s “The Sick Rose.” It opens with the horn playing G#G, which also announces the rose’s death, and closes the song. The next song, “Dirge,” uses the same motif to set the words of an anonymous fifteenth-century poet: “And Christe receive thy saule…” Thus does Britten suggest that the soul commended to Christ in “Dirge” is that of Blake’s rose. At the end of the song cycle, the horn plays a transposed version of the motif in natural harmonics, poignantly reminding the listener of its significance in “Elegy” and “Dirge.”
“Tonal Process in Two Songs from Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings”
Gordon Sly, Michigan State University
Though various tonal-harmonic constructs in Britten’s music are self-evident, a systematic arrangement of these elements—a syntax—is not. Scholars have come at this question in very different ways. Arnold Whittall, for example, emphasizes the tonic-dominant relationship. Philip Rupprecht proposes registrally-defined conflicting tonal strata. And David Forrest takes up the subject of prolongation, basic to tonal process generally, advancing a model for triadic post-tonal music based on symmetrical interval cycles. To these I will add another approach. I will argue that Britten’s harmonic organization—local progression as well as overarching design—is at times not harmonically driven at all, but is instead motivated by some feature or idea that is more basic to the compositional design. I will support this argument with analyses of the central pair of songs from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, the Elegy and Dirge.
PAPER SESSION 2 – Unity and Development
Friday, October 18, 10:45am, Hemmle Recital Hall
“Movement Unification Through the Tritone in Britten’s War Requiem”
Emily Yates, Texas Tech University
This paper will explore the introduction and development of the tritone in Britten’s War Requiem through an examination of the Requiem aeternam and Agnus Dei movements. Britten establishes the tritone, with the pitches of C and F#, as an important interval from the beginning of the first movement by introducing the pitches individually and harmonizing them tonally. After consolidating the two pitches into one voice through a quickening of entrances and a breakdown in established rhythms, Britten develops the tritone motive through a variety of transformations throughout the movement and the rest of the work. The Agnus Dei movement features the tritone in a symmetrical scale ostinato, found in the chamber orchestra accompaniment. The tenor solo, first consonant with the ostinato, becomes stratified before returning to consonance by the end of the movement. This process is shown through intervallic and prolongational analysis.
“Motives and Motivations: Linkage Technique in Britten’s Operas and Other Vocal Works”
Michael Baker, University of Kentucky
Schenker’s concept of linkage technique––a situation where a musical phrase or section begins with a motive stated at the end of the immediately preceding one and then continues independently—is applicable to a wide range of music, regardless of tonal implications or the lack thereof. A broad survey of Britten’s compositional output reveals linkage as one of the composer’s most frequently-employed motivic techniques. Whereas linkage can be found in many genres, opera composers may use this technique to depict certain aspects of a character’s thoughts and motivations, either spoken or unspoken, as the drama continues to unfold on stage.
Following a brief discussion of linkage technique in general, this paper will examine several instances of linkage in the operas and other vocal works of Britten. In doing so, I will show that Britten frequently uses linkage technique in the following three ways: (1) linkage between the vocal melody and the instrumental accompaniment, (2) linkage between vocal phrases separated by an intervening instrumental accompaniment, and (3) linkage between the music sung by different characters in an opera. I will show that Britten frequently draws upon enharmonic re-spelling at moments of linkage, sometimes for notational convenience, and other times to specifically portray aspects of poetic meaning in his libretti and song texts. Consideration of linkage has practical implications for opera performers, directors and choreographers, who may use insights gained through score analysis to craft a staged, gestural interpretation at moments of linkage.
PAPER SESSION 3 – The Operas
Saturday, October 19, 9:00am, Choir Room M010
“Secco Recitatives and Late Style in Britten’s Death in Venice”
Shersten Johnson, University of St. Thomas
Following in a long line of writers who have read Britten’s works as autobiographical, Canton et al. (2012) argue that, from Death in Venice on, his works reflect an untimely plunge into old age and reveal his “profound struggle… with the betrayal of his body.” Touching on the notion of “late style”— an idea that Straus (2011) has reconfigured as “disability style”—they write, “the features of Britten’s late style were at once shaped by his physical circumstances and reflect an organic culmination of his life’s work.“ Other critics agree that, in Death in Venice, Britten engages his own impending death via the character of an aging artist, Aschenbach, who faces a decline in his creative powers. In fact, during the writing of the opera, an operation was recommended that left Britten partially paralyzed, and he neither performed as a pianist nor wrote for the piano again.
In retrospect then, Death in Venice is especially apt for an examination of Britten’s late style as “disability style,” and, though often omitted from analyses of the opera, the secco recitatives especially deserve attention, representing as they do the last remnants of Britten’s piano writing. This paper examines how the recitatives help create a profound portrayal of Aschenbach’s struggle with writer’s block. It concludes with fresh readings, hearing in the recitatives not only Britten as an adroit improviser and collaborative pianist, but also as a self-analyst aware of his failing abilities.
“’Perilous Sweetness’ – (De)Ciphering Subjectivities in Britten’s late works Death in Venice Op. 88 and Phaedra Op. 93″
Marianne Kielian-Gilbert, Indiana University
Benjamin Britten’s final vocal composition, Phaedra, Op. 93 (1975) selectively sets Robert Lowell’s verse translation of Racine’s Phèdre as a dramatic solo cantata (an opera in miniature) for mezzo soprano and small orchestra. My discussion develops the complex and composite subjectivities of Britten’s protagonists as well as experiential motivic connections between Phaedra Op. 93 and Britten’s Death in Venice Op. 88, his 1973 opera on Thomas Mann’s novella about the aging novelist Aschenbach’s unrealized and obsessive passion for the boy Tadzio.
At the end of Death in Venice, the deathly ill Aschenbach re-imagines Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and the boy Phaedrus in a simple strophic aria that serves both as narrative denouement and broader question: do paths lead to wisdom through beauty and the senses or through intellect, form, and pure detachment?
Disabled by their obsessions, Aschenbach and Phaedra become social outcasts; both fall prey to beauty and to forbidden pleasures, Phaedra in her incestual passion for her stepson Hippolytus, and Aschenbach in his idealized passion for the boy child Tadzio. These unbecoming obsessions overshadow their sense of self, out of place and out of bounds (disabled) by societal norms: Aschenbach materializes within, the “plague” outside; Phaedra in her guilt chooses suicide, ingesting Medea’s poison. Figuring related motive forms, both receive Britten’s nuanced musical and dramatic characterizations made “strange” by exotic and geographical distancing (Aschenbach’s “musical” perceptions of Tadzio), by mythical abstraction and distancing (Phaedra as musical taboo), and by multiple crossings of gender and physical/moral debility in music-dramatic performance.
“Focalization in Britten’s Operas: The Case of Herring”
The analysis of tonal symbolism in Britten’s operas has a long history, extending back at least to Erwin Stein’s earliest writing on Billy Budd. Yet, some analysts, in Britten studies and in opera studies generally, consider such analysis suspect; they suggest that the symbolic systems discovered do not cohere when faced with the jagged realities of musical detail.
Seeking to restrict the analytical purview of tonal symbolism without diminishing its utility, I have developed a model of focalization, the musico-dramatic aspect of opera that shapes how listeners perceive the role of music in the narrative. By means of attributive signs, listeners are drawn into the perspective of privileged stage characters (focalizors) whose subjectivities are externalized musically. To adapt Gary Tomlinson, the focalizor’s mind is the “mind whose experience the music [of the opera] is.” I further suggest that focalizors’ subjectivities in Britten’s operas are externalized as webs of tonal symbols, manifest under strong focalization and otherwise operative subtly.
In this paper, I summarize my model of focalization, drawing examples from Albert’s first monologue; propose a tonal web that represents Albert’s fraught subjectivity, pitting, for example, Albert’s G major against Sid’s C-sharp major; and show how later, in the act 3 “Threnody,” the opera becomes focalized through former caricatures suddenly humanized by grief. Drawn into the perspective of the Loxfordians, we are duped as they are by Albert’s tall tale of “drunkenness, dirt and worse.” And in the end, the joke—hinging on focalization—turns out to be on us all.
SESSION 4 – Visual Influences
Saturday, October 19, 10:45am, Choir Room M010
Lecture Recital: “Influences on Temporal Variations”
Tracy Carr, Eastern New Mexico University
As a young man in Britain in the years following World War I, Britten was swept up in the pacifist movement which was growing in the country along with the increasing talk of re-arming. He wrote passionately of the horrors of the executions taking place in the Spanish Civil War and commented often on the frightening prospect of war resulting from the build-up of German power in Poland and Austria. His work “Our Hunting Fathers,” written just prior to the “Temporal Variations,” was strongly anti-war and even anti-politics.
In writing to the War Board, Britten said “The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction.” Although not a believer in the Divinity of Christ, Britten nonetheless felt that Jesus’ teaching was sound, and his example should be followed. Britten left England in 1939 and spent the war years in exile in the United States as a Conscientious Objector.
Of the four chamber works for oboe that Britten wrote, three are dedicated to the oboists who premiered them. At the time he wrote “Temporal Variations,” Britten was writing music for the British Broadcasting Corporation and theater companies where he became acquainted with author Montagu Slater to whom he dedicated this work.
This lecture-recital details the possible inspirations for each of the nine movements, traces the theme that unifies the work, and concludes with a slide show of related photographs and performance of the piece.
Roundtable Discussion of Papers
1:00pm, Choir Room M010
To synthesize the academic contributions to the symposium, facilitators David Forrest and Stacey Jocoy will pose questions to the panel of presenters in hopes of drawing meaningful connections between the various topics discussed at the symposium. Contributions from the audience are encouraged.