Benjamin Britten at 100: To Moonrise Kingdom and beyond

As the world celebrates the composer’s centenary, Clemency Burton-Hill examines his enduring influence – from opera to Moonrise Kingdom.

The trickle began on 1 January 2013 and quickly became a flood, even though the actual centenary would not occur for more than 11 months. Extended think-pieces started appearing in diverse publications, from specialist music magazines to literary journals to mainstream broadsheets. Competing biographies hit the market. Documentaries cropped up on TV schedules. New productions opened in every major opera house around the globe. And in the UK alone hundreds of choral societies, soloists, orchestras, string ensembles and youth groups readied themselves to perform his music in every church hall and local music centre in the land.

Now we can finally celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten for real. In anticipation of the actual date of the composer’s birth on 22 November, all eyes and ears turn to Britten’s hometown of Aldeburgh in Suffolk. BBC Radio 3 are decamping to the small seaside town for the duration, broadcasting an array of events which can be heard online around the world, including talks, concerts, operas – and no less than 100,000 kids taking part in a very special production of Noye’s Fludde.

In his widely quoted acceptance speech for the first Aspen Award in 1964, Britten resolutely bucked the modernist – and rather exclusive – compositional spirit of his age by announcing that he wanted his music to be “of use to people”. It is fair to say he got his wish. His music has proved to be of inestimable ‘use’, not just in the local communities he cared so passionately about, but in the big wide world beyond.

Benjamin Britten is often referred to as the most influential composer of the 20th Century (to the chagrin, one assumes, of Stravinsky and Schoenberg aficionados.) He himself was relaxed in admitting his own indebtedness to the past, apparently untroubled by the psychological ‘anxiety of influence’ that plagued his more avant-gardist contemporaries. Britten’s singular musical and dramatic language drew unashamedly on everything from English Renaissance music to his Russian contemporaries Prokofiev and Shostakovich, to say nothing of the Eastern sounds and poetry in which he was literate long before the Beatles turned their attention to Asia. As the great Britten tenor Ian Bostridge notes, Britten’s advice to his young counterpart Jonathan Harvey in 1967 is telling: “Don’t worry what silly people say about influences – unless we were all influenced by someone we’d write just nonsense.”

Lend him your ears

But it is true that Britten’s own influence on both pre- and post-war classical music, especially in Britain, is impossible to overstate. As well as his significant contributions to any genre you could care to name, in 1945 he single-handedly revived major English opera with Peter Grimes, while also inventing the concept of ‘pocket’ opera: without Britten there would not only have been no such works as Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement or William Walton’s The Bear, but probably no English Touring Opera, no Mid Wales Opera, no Pavilion Opera. Britten’s powerful operatic message was this: get it out there, make it useful, let the local community know it is theirs…

Most heroically of all, and with a commitment perhaps matched only by Leonard Bernstein, Britten was determined to make music more accessible to children –  opening their eyes and ears to the joys of classical music-making in works such as The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, The Little Sweep, and Noye’s Fludde.

The latter work is also a powerful reminder of just how influential Britten has been outside the classical canon. Speaking at the Cannes Film Festival last year, director Wes Anderson told reporters that his film Moonrise Kingdom was “sort of set” to Britten’s music, which had a “huge effect on the whole movie”. Anderson revealed, “The play of Noye’s Fludde that is performed in it – my older brother and I were actually in a production of that when I was ten or eleven, and that music is something I’ve always remembered, and made a very strong impression on me. It is the color of the movie in a way.”

Anderson’s use of Britten’s music in the film goes far beyond what we might reasonably expect in a ‘soundtrack’. As the New Yorker music writer and composer Russell Platt says, “[It] is not a throwaway detail; it is a burst of life-affirming imagination… [Anderson] ‘sets’ his film to Britten’s opera almost in the way in which a composer ‘sets’ a poet’s or lyricist’s words in a song. Indeed, the final credits of Moonrise Kingdom are matched, gesture for gesture, to the sounds of the closing Fugue from another Britten masterwork, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

Nor is Anderson the only figure in non-musical contemporary culture whose debt to Benjamin Britten is immense. The choreographer Richard Alston, for example, whose company is dancing at the Barbican Centre’s Britten Celebrations this weekend, asks, “Why dance to Britten? The simple answer is that his music breathes. It rises and falls, often with the voice, in lucid phrases that have a palpable sense of physical movement.” He recently described his first encounter with Britten’s music, as a 14-year-old schoolboy, as “captivating.” It has remained part of his life ever since.

So how did Britten do it? Why does his music – which, after all, is not unchallenging on the ears – profoundly affect so many people? How can he connect to seemingly everyone? The composer Oliver Knussen, who first met Britten as a boy and is involved in Radio 3’s Aldeburgh extravaganza this weekend, gives us a hint:

“He managed to make you feel that whatever you were doing was just as valuable. That's a magic quality I've only met in a couple of people, Bernstein being another. It sometimes seems to me that the greater the artist, the greater their ability to connect in this way.” Knussen adds, “To me he seemed like a sort of ideal school teacher, very wise but also very charismatic, that any kid in their right mind would gravitate toward.”

Make that hundreds of thousands of kids this weekend, along with their adult counterparts, from all walks of life and from almost everywhere on earth. Happy Birthday, Benjamin Britten.

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