Written by Timothy Vernon
Dame Janet Baker seems to have outdone herself at the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival in a performance of Berllioz’s Nuits d’Ete. (Britten founded the Festival in 1948; 1976 was to be his last – he died at just 63.) He told Dame Janet that he wanted to write something for her, and composed the cantata Phaedra, choosing his libretto from a translation (more accurately, an adaptation) of Racine’s drama, made by the American poet Robert Lowell.
Britten’s chosen texts focus not on Phaedra’s loss of sanity, but on her “thick adulterous passion” – she has become obsessed with her husband’s son. Britten, who was in his youth deeply religious, suffered all his life from an inescapable sense of sin; this informs the psychology of many of his dramas and song cycles. Only at the end of his life was homosexuality beginning to be accepted as a normal human expression of love. ‘Otherness’ pervades much of his dramatic oeuvre – a darkness which, if not made explicit, can be felt in the background.
The piece has moments of ferocious intensity – its energy astonished friends at first hearing, who could not have imagined such vigorous writing to come from one enfeebled by heart disease and in fact near death. A few of Britten’s late works seem comparatively abstract to me, even dry – but not this. Beginning with the opening knell, we are plunged directly into Phaedra’s fatal quandary, the phrases piercing, and in a recitative style that recalls Baroque usage: harpsichord and cello figure prominently. Then quick squeaky, almost bat-like passages in the strings show a mind fragmenting, unravelling. The repeated percussive presence of uneven drum rhythms have long been associated with the composer’s own diseased heart. A long, slow, fateful march of full string chords brings a fleeting sense of resolution in a glimmer of eternity, before the last knell, a memory of agony in the strings, and finally, an image unlike anything I know in music: unmistakably we hear a spirit leaving a body in final exhalation.
Phaedra makes me wish that, like Mozart and Schubert before him, whose lives were even more drastically truncated, Britten might have been given another fifteen or twenty years of creativity to further enrich the world of music with his genius.
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
It is a bit surprising to learn that Britten was encouraged to undertake this sublime masterwork, not by his life partner, tenor Peter Pears, but by the great – then quite young – horn player Dennis Brain. This goes some way to explaining the stunning virtuosity of the horn part, definitely more than a match for the tenor’s role. Britten’s superb, unsurpassed sensitivity to language is at its best in this work – it is as if he discovers the music already inside the words, and by writing it down, enables us to hear it, too. Like the great songs of Schubert, it is impossible, having had a profound experience of them, to read the texts without hearing the music in the mind’s ear.
Every cycle of Britten songs is an inspired response to great poems. Just as he looked Shakespeare right in the eye when composing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so in this Serenade he does not shy from greatness, but found six poems with Night as their theme: Blake, Keats, Tennyson, Jonson and Cotton, and the anonymous Lyke Wake Dirge from the 15th C, make up another Britten-assembled mini-anthology of delight.
The work begins and ends with an extended horn call. In it, Britten writes for the natural harmonics of the instrument, without valves to bend pitches to the expected tempered scale. This strangeness suggests pristine natural order, preparing us for the shifting placement in Nature of the five songs.
‘Pastoral’ (Cotton) brings a wistful bucolic vision of dusk, evoking wondrously the lengthening shadows of evening:
Molehills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.
In ‘Nocturne’ (Tennyson), he brings a bright rhythmical theme of the poet’s imagined ‘Splendour’ falling on castle walls, and the 19th Century’s medievalism in the ‘wild echoes’ of ancient bugles.
Blake’s brief, pungent “Elegy’, with its powerful image of a worm in the bud of a beautiful rose, spoke to Britten’s deep sense of sin, with its root in his homosexuality. The poem itself is delivered in a ‘free’ recitative; on both sides of it is a long brooding horn solo, accompanied by ‘untempered’ chords, rising to a horrific climax before subsiding, still troubled, to a discordant E major.
An ominous march in the strings, which begins far away and advances til it seems to stomp right over us (the climactic horn entry here is horrifying), then subsides again into infinite distance, ‘accompanies’ the 15tth C Like Wake Dirge, with its hair-raising suggestion of hellfire; the tenor, adding to the sense of strain, delivers his repetitive motif near the upper end of his range, with terrifying swoops.
Johnson’s Hymn (to Diana) is as complete a change as one could imagine – brilliant, full of artifice, the music puts both singer and (especially) hornist to the test of technical tour de force. The horn part is among the most challenging in the entire repertoire – fleet and light over a wide range; the tenor has extended coloratura to negotiate with true rhythmical clarity. Hymn sparkles, as befit a ‘goddess excellently bright’.
‘Sonnet’ (Keats) combines brooding chromaticism – sleep as narcotic –
with telling juxtapositions of purely diatonic chords. Poppies are invoked for their aid in achieving forgetfulness. Memories of the day are harsh reminders of a reality the poet yearns to escape.
O soothest Sleep………..
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul
With the horn’s Epilogue, we realize that it has been silent for the last song (this has a practical reason: the player needs to find his way backstage to play the Epilogue from a distance.) Though it is identical to the Prologue, our experience of it is entirely different, laden with the memories of the entire cycle, now coming to its quiet, meditative close.