shostakovich and britten

Dmitri Shostakovich (left) and Benjamin Britten in 1966

Last Friday evening Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic treated Liverpudlians to a preview of a concert that was to be repeated two nights later as part of The Rest is Noise festival, the series of concerts and events bringing to life Alex Ross’s survey of 20th-century music that has been running at London’s Southbank Centre throughout 2013.

The concert featured three pieces, all from the  early 1970s – Luciano Berio’s Four Versions of the Retreat from Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid, Benjamin Britten’s Suite from his opera Death in Venice, and Dimitri Shostakovich’s last Symphony, the Fifteenth.  Britten’s opera was first performed in June 1973, and the programme notes helpfully highlighted some musical landmarks of 1973 (including the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon on 1 March) and provided a box headed, ‘1972 in context’. In that year, the context included such milestones as: British unemployment exceeding 1 million for the first time since the 1930s, the introduction of Access credit cards, and the UK joining the EEC.

The implication of this information was that the pieces we were hearing somehow reflected their time.  It’s possible, I suppose, though not in the sense of commenting directly on current political or social concerns in the way that Pink Floyd’s album set out to do.  A more likely way in which these works by Britten and Shostakovitch suggest their time might be found in the observation by Alex Ross that:

Both men seem almost to have been born with a feeling of being cornered.  Even in works of their teenage years, they appear to be experiencing spasms of existential dread.  They were grown men with the souls of gifted, frightened children.

The two composers had been firm friends since the mid-1960s, each living a marginalized existence within his own culture and wrestling with an acute personal dilemma.  For Britten, pacifist and homosexual who lived openly with Peter Pears his personal and professional partner, this was not his sexuality per se , but his longing for the company of underage males. For Shostakovitch, it was his precarious position in relation to Soviet cultural demands and a lifetime of denunciations by and personal accommodations with the Soviet communism that tormented him.  Ross remarks:

Britten’s psychological landscape, with its undulating contours of fear and guilt, its fault lines and crevasses, its wan redeeming light, made Shostakovitch feel at home.

1972 was the year in which Britten was composing the opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice; it was the year, too, in which Shostakovitch – then 66 years old and in constant pain from various illnesses that included heart trouble, lung cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease – finally made the journey to the Red House in Aldeburgh, where Britten and Pears had lived and worked from 1957.  In his book, Ross tells how Britten allowed his friend and fellow-composer to see the score of what was to be his final opera, Death in Venice, something that Britten usually kept utterly private.

Britten and Pears

Benjamin Britten (left) with tenor Peter Pears in 1946.

So, what of the music and the performances?  Each one of these three pieces was entirely new to me, but it was clear that the evening was another triumph for Vasily Petrenko as the Phil’s Chief Conductor, and there were excellent performances by the RLPO musicians, especially from those in command of the extensive battery of percussion and timpani ranged across the stage.  For each of these pieces require a lot of percussion (I realised that in programming a concert, making economical use of the soloists you have marshalled is as much a factor as thematic or musical considerations).  There were castanets and kettle drums the fore in the opening piece by Luciano Berio, written in 1975 but modelled on an 18th century work by Boccherini that depicts the Madrid city watch at midnight curfew hour, the music growing louder as the watch draws closer, then dying away as the parade passes (reminding me of ‘Saeta’, the processional piece from the Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain.

Percussion in the form of bells, vibraphone, glockenspiels, xylophones, gong and timpani – pervaded the score of the Britten piece, reflecting the powerful impact which hearing Balinese gamelan music had had on Britten a decade earlier.  The Suite from Death in Venice is accepted as being one of the most impassioned and poignant pieces of Britten’s career:

Death in Venice, Britten’s last opera (1971-73), is in many respects his most personal, even confessional. Based on the novella by Thomas Mann, it tells of Aschenbach, an internationally-celebrated writer of austere lifestyle, who has dedicated himself to the Apollonian pursuit of beauty but seems to have lost inspiration and the capacity for feeling. He takes a holiday in Venice, where he becomes fascinated and obsessed by a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio (a non-singing role, portrayed by a dancer), whom he observes from afar. Although he learns that a fatal epidemic is rife in the city he stays on, giving himself up to his long-suppressed Dionysiac impulses and dies of the disease, finally admitting to himself that he loves the boy. Aschenbach recognizes and confronts his hitherto latent homosexuality in terms of anguish and eventual decay, and the opera – deeply effective and moving – appears as Britten’s own most direct statement concerning his own sexuality. As Britten was having heart surgery by the time of the first performances in June 1973, he was unable to attend, and responsibility for final realization of the score devolved onto the conductor, Steuart Bedford.
– Philharmonic programme notes

The opera was Britten’s most public statement of his long-term relationship with tenor Peter Pears, who originally performed the demanding lead role.  Like the character of Aschenbach, Britten died in middle age – in December 1976 – from heart failure brought on by tertiary syphilis, according to Benjamin Britten: A life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea, who records that as Britten exhausted himself on research for Death In Venice in 1971, he said to his assistant: “First of all I’ve got to finish this one, then there’s a big work, then an opera, and then I’ll be ill.”

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Britten’s great friend Shostakovich also died in middle age, writing his final symphony in 1971 at the age of 65 following a heart attack. The work is generally interpreted as the composer’s reflection on his life and music, which had been repeatedly – sometimes oppressively – overshadowed by Soviet politics. There are quotations from his earlier symphonies and other works by Rossini, Mahler and Wagner, and great opportunities for soloists to shine  – from the trumpet quoting the William Tell overture in the first movement to a beautiful cello passage in the second movement (that reminded me how much I love Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto) and clarinet and violin solos in the third.

Shostakovich’s last symphony was composed in July 1971 at a composers’ rest home in Repino, 20 miles north-west of Leningrad, and first performed in Moscow on 8 January 1972. Shostakovich died of lung cancer on 9 August 1975.

We had heard music by two composers, each one ‘born with a feeling of being cornered’ and living a marginalized existence within his own culture.  If there are any parallels with Pink Floyd’s phenomenally successful Dark Side of the Moon, they lie in the album’s central theme that flowed from the band’s loss of founder member and lyricist Syd Barrett as his mental state deteriorated.  An extended meditation on conflict, greed, insanity and death, the album contains the song which might be considered the theme for the decades to come:

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and your O.K.
Money it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviare, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team
Money get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off my stack.
Money it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the hi-fidelity first class travelling set
And I think I need a Lear jet
Money it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re
giving none away

And, finally, the album asks, who is sane, and who is really mad?

The lunatic is in the hall.
The lunatics are in my hall.
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more.

Rostropovich conducts Shostakovich Symphony No.15

Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten play Balinese Ceremonial Music

4 thoughts on “The Rest Is Noise: Britten and Shostakovitch cornered

  1. Thanks for another very interesting post. Two gifted and clever men.
    I cant help feeling that Britten was to some extent a victim of the times in which he lived in that it seemed vital to create something new or something technically innovative even if it resulted in music that was clever but not particularly memorable.
    The truth is that I probably rate as “good”, music that I enjoy because it suits my taste. Nonetheless, I am always left with the feeling that for all his technical ability what Britten left was somewhat over rated.
    Thanks again for the post, Andy.

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