Encores & Curtain Calls:
“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.
— Benjamin Britten
The official consensus on Benjamin Britten is that he was, in the trajectory of its spotty musical history, England’s greatest composer, a contention from which, despite a handful of much-admired works and decades of renewed listenings, I would respectfully but emphatically depart.
Yet he was preceded and paralleled by the cream of England’s greatest composers — Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge, the exquisite but too-overlooked Frederick Delius and his astonishing arch-rival William Walton.
The fetching title of the upcoming, and last, Valley Classics concert of the season, “The Touches of Sweet Harmony: Benjamin Britten’s Musical Roots,” is drawn from the Bard of Avon’s “Merchant of Venice,” to which England’s truly greatest composer — 20th century or otherwise — Ralph Vaughan Williams composed an incomparably exquisite ode titled “Serenade to Music” for no fewer than 16 solo vocalists and orchestra. While this will, understandably, not be appearing on the program, there is a lovely suite for cello and piano of Vaughan Williams’ arrangements of British Isle folk songs and no one I know could set these gems more luminously than he. While light of touch, they somehow manage still to run deep and having perfected these for her “Folkfire” disc of several years ago, series codirector and cellist Rebecca Hartka has them in her blood.
The concert takes place Sunday, May 26, 3 p.m., at The Arts Block, 289 Main St., Greenfield, with violinist Colleen Jennings, violists Scott Slapin and Tanya Solomon and pianist Gregory Hayes abetting Hartka. Also on the bill of fare are Edward Elgar’s “Chanson de Nuit,” and “Chanson de Matin,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’ scintillating “Six Studies on English Folksong,” Bridge’s “Phantasie Quartet,” Austrailian (but British wanna-be) composer Percy Grainger’s “Irish Tune from County Derry,” and Gregory Hayes’ arrangement of Grainger’s “Handel in the Strand.”
To be fair, Britten was — in the volatile and progressive landscape of the 20th century — England’s best shot at a “real contemporary composer” who could hope to match wits with his artistic brethren in Germany, France, Italy and the United States. He undertook ambitious projects — a slew of dramatically effective but musically far less compelling modern operas: “Peter Grimes,” “Death in Venice” and Melville’s “Billy Budd” — which got him on the A-list for depth of content and dramatic complexity. He also penned a “War Requiem” and a big cello symphony, which earned him the approbation of his peers and the critics. But, in the revealing light of retrospect, there was far less response or resonance from music lovers at large and even less airplay.
No, it was the nongrandiose Britten, the less-ambitious, less pretentious and more tender-hearted forays, that earned him whatever place of endearment his music still enjoys today; such simple and stirring works as his pristine “Ceremony of Carols” for three-part boy’s choir, which so evocatively conjures the radiance of the equinoctial darkness, his jubilant “Rejoice in the Lamb” for mixed chorus and his mystical “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” likewise for mixed chorus.
Much of the rest of his work the musical cognoscente do a largely unconvincing job of soberly pretending to admire. Lest the reader conclude me too biased, perhaps the first randomly Googled example of this ambivalence on the part of self-confessed admirers for Britten’s output may lend a bit more credence to my cause; the writer is a cellist who has decided to produce an exegesis elucidating the profundities of Britten’s Cello Sonata for other cellists who might wish to undertake the work:
“However, despite Britten’s reputation as an outstanding composer and the significance of the sonata, this sonata has been performed infrequently. Britten utilized many challenging techniques and adapted them innovatively in the composition, and perhaps performers may be reluctant to choose this work due to the complexity and challenge inherent in the composition itself. The purpose of this dissertation is to provide a practical guide for students and those who wish to learn and perform Britten’s Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, Op. 65, by increasing understanding of the work and by offering practical assistance.”
The writer then goes on to attempt rescuing the sonata’s aesthetic gold from its long marginalized status as a less-than-compelling experience on the part of its hearers; always, in my view, a dangerous undertaking in any artistic venue.
For the sake of argument, if the cellist is in the unenviable state of having to have the merits of a piece dissected and re-invented, one can only imagine the exponentially greater task of we poor, unlettered listeners in scaling that same mountain.
Yet, it is a mountain — or molehill — which so many of Britten’s hopeful listeners find themselves having to scale again and again in hopes that, next time, the trek will prove a bit more enjoyable.
Even a cursory listening of Britten’s Cello Sonata at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKyRlF2yn3c will yield, as the minutes tick by, the curious sensation of a piece that has still yet to begin in earnest, with fitful, anemic warmings up, snippets of nip-and-tuck phrase-trading between cello and piano and with not not the slightest sign of an emotional commitment in any direction.
Whereas, if you dial up Rostropovich’s ardent performance of the cello sonata of Frank Bridge, Britten’s gifted teacher, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICRtOFfw7Q8, you may well find yourself, as was I, totally enwrapped and entranced within — no exaggeration — four seconds flat, remaining entranced for the duration. Nor, for all his art, is the glory due to Rostropovich, but rather to Bridge’s noble inspiration itself.
Which may be one reason why — consciously or unconsciously — Hartka, has found herself probing beyond Britten’s own, more conflicted, era for the pieces of the present program, works by far more melodious, heartfelt, dramatically dynamic composers of the Edwardian period just prior to his entry on the world musical scene.
Should you find yourself in attendance, take care to tune into the ever-elegant Elgar’s mastery of intense emotion, sublimely restrained within the Edwardian obsession for decorum and be sure to have fun with the Grainger who, unlike his soon-to-come descendant Britten, seldom allowed himself to take life too seriously.
Information: Tickets may be purchased at the door or online at theartsblock.com.
Tickets for “The Touches of Sweet Harmony” are $15 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. They may be purchased at the door or online at theartsblock.com. The Arts Block is wheelchair accessible.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.