Saturday, October 16, 2010

Turning Thumbscrews

It's always useful for a composer to try to work through her or his dislikes. John Cage disliked the vibraphone, recordings, and improvisation, yet managed to come to some productive terms, late in life, with the latter two.  (At least we have Morton Feldman's use of the vibraphone as some compensation.)

One of my greater dislikes is the music of Benjamin Britten.  Since High School, I seem to perpetually find myself in the company of people I treasure but who find themselves massively disappointed in this particular dislike of mine. These advocates have constantly pushed scores, recordings and concert tickets in my direction.  Way back when, I dutifully studied much of the music closely, was a rehearsal pianist for some works for a high school choir and even once played the recorder solo in Noye's Fludde.  But my opinion hasn't much budged. There are aspects I do admire — the conductorless, often only loosely coordinated ensemble music in the Church parables, for example, but the vocal music is really the center of Britten's work and I can't get around my dislike for the edgeless envelope that seems to be the official, Peter-Pearsish production style, just puffs and swells of air with minimal intervention by the consonants which ought be in-between.  

I recently saw The Turn of the Screw, which from its constructive aspects — its formal architecture and tonal discipline — ought to be my favorite of the Britten operas, which it is, but also because of the musical dramaturgy which gradually — even gently — tells its deeply disturbing story, almost without ever making matters explicit or having anything actually eventful happen, a style deeply faithful to the source text. But the work is flawed, to my ears, by three things which could have easily been fixed, (1)  by eliminating the prologue — narration works only in operas for puppets (Lou Harrison made the same mistake in trying to turn Young Ceasar into an opera for real boys*), and anything in the text of the prologue which was necessary to the opera should have been saved for dialogue in the first scene, thus very usefully reserving the only adult male voice for a strategic later appearance —, (2) by cutting the scene with the ghosts — which unfortunately removes any ambiguity about the central question of their existence independent from the Governess's imagination —; and (3) finally by thinning out the scoring of the celesta and the tubular bells, which play continuously through one scene — some instruments just demand discretion, thinned out either in number of appearances or in dynamic level (providing another reminder that Morton Feldman really understood how to write for celesta and tubular bells).**

Okay, I haven't moved much in my opinion about Britten, but working with the material nevertheless can still provide some useful composition lessons.***  [Also this note to self: should I ever have to write a James opera, let it be William rather than Henry; The Varieties of Religious Experience or Essays in Radical Empiricism, perhaps?] 


* Manuel de Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro smartly uses Master Pedro's narration and comments to mediate between levels in a puppet-play-within-a-puppet-opera structure.

** My daughter also pointed out that it was unfair that the male child, Miles, actually got to be sung by a boy, but the role of the sister, Flora, was — and is, conventionally — sung by an adult. We had a long discussion about such conventions, the abundance and prestige of boys' choirs compared to girls' and mixed childrens' choirs, and similar topics, concluding that it probably should be possible, nowadays, to cast the role with a girl of approximately the same age as the character. 

*** Much of the critical literature on The Turn of the Screw focuses on the 12-tonish aspects of the work and the question of their greater or lesser importance to the piece as well as the question of the composer's relationship to 12-tone and serial musics in general.  I think that the 12-tone "theme" usefully provides for both an immediate and a general circulation of tones and it sets up some useful reference pitches and intervals. As to a relationship to other musics, Britten's practice may make a nod to Berg, but it is really a species of the hybrid informal 12-tone-cum-tonal music that was more widespread in postwar music than any strictly classical 12-tone or serial practice.        


Kraig Grady said...

The thing i like about Britten is that his pieces really die at the end. It is often a welcome change from the manic avoidance of it from american composers.

Civic Center said...

Ah, my favorite 20th century opera composer next to Janacek. But a friend, and fellow admirer, once said, "Britten's music is like coconut. You either really like it or you really can't stand it." Being a more subtle soul, you sound like you have a less black-and-white reaction, but there's definitely a trace of I-Hate-Coconut in there. (And by the way, I can't stand the taste of coconut.)