When I first came to music the names I knew were Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps everybody knows those names, whether they know music or not. By the time I came to study music ‘seriously’ in school I came at it with an ignorance that I now sometimes miss – when first impressions are mere impressions and don’t come laden with assumptions, or a default reverence for some music, and irreverence for others. To listen to music in such a fresh and isolated way makes me feel independent – i feel that I like the music because it is (to me) good music, and not because it’s one of the 100 best pieces ever written in the canon of Western Art Music, as approved by people in general. To discover music in this way is particularly special as there’s a certain kind of joy in finding something that you know to be good.
I discovered Britten in this way. When I was in my first year of uni I went to a composition workshop where a Harpist (who I think was Marshall McGuire, but i could be wrong) was a guest musician – he talked a bit about the challenges in composing for Harp, explained some common extended technique and then played a piece by Britten. It was the tocatta from the Suite for Solo Harp (op.83) and i was completely bewitched. It’s strange how some composers get so much more popular than others. Britten is, I suppose, relatively new, and perhaps it’s good not to too readily anoint a composer as a genius, but for me, there is no doubt – his music is at once beautiful and new – he is both an expert and an innovator and his sound is an antidote to the stress of life, and at the same time a mirror to life’s complexities. If any music were food for the soul it is Britten – moreso than any other composer – more than Bach or Debussy or Mozart or anyone else – I am always in the mood for Britten, and it always sits so well with me. It’s like Debussy, but a bit off, is not as delicate, has more of nature, more of nature’s bizarre rhythms, and it is a bit wild.
Of course when you do come across Britten you wonder how it is that you never knew of him before, for he has written in almost every genre – 13 operas, a mountain of vocal works, orchestral pieces, chamber pieces, and suites for quite a range of instruments. I suppose that if you’re not into choral music it would be easy to miss him – his operas, though often performed, are easily dwarfed by the sheer number of operas by the popular Italian composers, and his most famous work – the Young person’s guide to the orchestra is normally confined to concerts for children. Over my time at uni I came to know the Six Metamorphosis after Ovid for Oboe very well (so often performed in the woodwind concert prac!) and got acquainted with Peter Grimes and some choral works (Hymn to St Cecilia, and the War Requiem) and from my own investigations found the Suites for Cello and his operas.
For a flautist Britten hasn’t written much – there are only the Gemini variations (op.73), and the orchestral flute parts for his operas and symphonic works. Still, I don’t mind too much, and I often play through the six Metamorphosis after Ovid, which though I have to admit I like better on the Oboe, I do enjoy playing on my flute – particularly the last movement Arethusa. Could I pick a favourite work of Britten’s? Perhaps the Turn of the Screw.
In any event what I have wanted to do for a while now is get to know all of Britten’s music – to listen from the beginning to all 100 Opus (95 if you don’t count the re-workings of 5 pieces), to play his music, analyse it, and generally get to know it all intimately. So that’s what this project will be. If there are 100 works (and some of them are substantial) I imagine it will take me a year or two to work my way through Britten’s entire catalogue.