Benjamin Britten: A Life For Music

James Wood writes:

For someone growing up with the music of Benjamin Britten, it was sometimes hard to recall that his last name was not ‘Britain’. The race that Nietzsche had deemed heavy-hoofed and unmusical, whose last truly great composer had been Purcell, a nation that had been doing nothing very much, musically, but warbling in cathedrals for a couple of centuries, had somehow managed to produce a 20th-century composer of international stature, whose last name was that of the nation itself. We’d done it! Here was Benjamin Britain OM, ‘Baron Britain of Aldeburgh’, whose Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was as close to state music as a piece not actually the national anthem could be, and which cleverly merged spiky modern fugue with a stately theme from Purcell himself. In the same way, his many songs and adapted folk songs sounded a bit old and a bit new, or a bit English and a bit Continental. Palatable modernity: a good postwar flag under which to assemble. No wonder the school system flew it so often, in those countless ‘musical appreciation’ classes.

(LRB 19 December 2013)

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