Saturday, November 11, 2017

Great Britten

Delighted to hand the floor today to our young correspondent Jack Pepper today for a look at why we need a new Britten in Britain for the 21st century, and what conditions might be necessary for one to emerge. And no, it's not just the mainstream media. Jack, 18, is a writer and composer. JD


Great Britten
Jack Pepper

A centenary stamp for Benjamin Britten, 2013

We need another Britten. Facing social and political divides, and frequent misperceptions of classical music, we need a musical polymath to become an ‘establishment’ figure who can excite the public and prove that all aspects of music can unite us. What happened to the classical musician as the public voice of justice and humanity?

In public and in private, Benjamin Britten was exactly what the 21st-century needs. The problems we face today were all in some ways addressed by the composer. Born in Lowestoft, Britten was never a representative of the highest born elite, and so was a perfect representative of the ideal of music for all. Today classical music faces criticism that it is the preserve of a wealthy minority. Composing for schoolchildren and amateur groups in works like Noye’s Fludde, Britten opened the genre to younger audiences, a passionate advocate of music education. 

Today we are surrounded by debates about how best to engage younger audiences with classical music. Determined to ensure the success and accessibility of Aldeburgh and later Snape Maltings, in 1953 Britten told Imogen Holst that “We’ll have a school here”. Today music festivals are fighting over Arts Council funding whilst trying hard to launch new schemes for young composers and performers. As a homosexual who neither flaunted nor suppressed his sexuality in public, Britten frequently used his music to express his personal viewpoints and comment on contemporary issues, be it conflict in the War Requiem or homosexuality in Death in Venice. In 2017, we commemorate 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, whilst also facing growing conflict in Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. Britten was a vital figure in a divisive century; he came to epitomise freedom, the rights of the individual, and the openness of music to all. He came to symbolise Britain.

But where is our Britten today? We have musicians who champion classical music amongst young people and amateur ensembles, likewise we enjoy high-profile conductors like Sir Simon Rattle championing the arts in the face of cuts and cultural cynicism. But do we have a figure entirely comparable to Benjamin Britten, both in the breadth of musical disciplines they represent and the public platform they occupy? In being equally capable and known as a composer, teacher, conductor, pianist, accompanist, writer, musical spokesperson and civil rights symbol, Britten was able to demonstrate the gamut of music’s potential to benefit society as a whole. Barenboim is probably the most notable and publicised musical polymath of today, known equally as a conductor, pianist, writer and political activist, but who in Britain can claim to combine such disciplines in an equal manner, and with similar publicity in the mainstream media?

Britten: a public voice?
Photo from allmusic.com
A musician of Britten’s versatility is more likely to encourage the public to adopt them as a figurehead, since they represent so much more than an interest in a certain repertoire or an area of music. To generalise, a top-class, frequently-televised conductor will likely appeal to an audience at least partially distinct from that which is attracted to a musical academic; it is reasonable to assume that a conductor of, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s stature, was attracting certain fans who may not have occupied the circles surrounding, say, Charles Rosen. Similarly, a song accompanist will likely have a very different main circle of admirers than a musician who is a political heavyweight. Britten, and Bernstein in America, stand out because they combined these diverse skills, and in doing so they came to represent all that was great about music, making them more likely to be adopted by the broader public as a representative of the arts. In uniting different musical disciplines, and combining this with a distinct personality and determined set of personal beliefs, Britten was able to symbolise all that was exciting, fair and engaging about classical music. A representative in its fullest sense.

But Britten was not only a great figurehead because of his own attributes. Society was receptive to his influence. Britten was commissioned to compose an opera – Gloriana - to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, whilst he also welcomed the Queen to the new Snape Maltings hall, just outside Aldeburgh, in 1967. He was given a platform that made him very much an establishment figure – one who the public recognised and thus one who was listened to – whilst also maintaining the freedom to express his own, often then-controversial, views. He was associated with his country and treasured by its public whilst also able to maintain his own viewpoints. Nowadays, composers continue to be commissioned to compose for royal events, with Paul Mealor writing for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; classical music continues to be at the heart of national occasions. Music itself has not lost its ability to unite people or to commemorate moments of national significance; likewise, music has not lost its share of high-profile figures who champion the arts. The problem is that the public platform for such views has diminished. The majority of these figures are still confined to musical circles. The debate about the importance of music in a volatile world is restricted to the musical world alone. What Britain lacks today is a figure that represents the arts to the wider public.

Other nations have this. Gustavo Dudamel opened up music for younger generations when he was appointed music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar – Venezuela’s national youth orchestra - in 1999. Daniel Barenboim has shown music’s capacity to unite opposing factions by conducting both Israeli and Palestinian musicians at a concert in 2014 to promote peace in Gaza. However, it’s not that Britain doesn’t have its own classical figureheads. Nicola Benedetti established the ‘Benedetti Sessions’ workshop programme that offers rehearsals, masterclasses and performances for young people. Classical music still enjoys a broad range of global and national ambassadors who, like Britten, champion the genre as a way of breaking down age, class and political barriers. But are they recognised in truly public spheres for doing so?

Adele
Photo from Wikipedia
We no longer see vast crowds of excited children attending the opening of a classical concert hall, as we did with Britten in 1967. Nor is the general public likely to identify a classical musician as a national and global figurehead for education, rights and freedom. Whilst Britten came to epitomise musical inclusiveness and the apogee of British musical achievement, today we lack a figure who an everyday Briton would immediately recognise as ‘ours’. Top musicians like Rattle, Benedetti and others are widely recognised for their championship of the arts, but this is still largely confined to musical circles. Think how many movie stars appear on The Graham Norton Show, The One Show or Top Gear, and then consider how many classical musicians we see in similar prime-time slots. Ask someone in the high street which musician best unites and epitomises this country, and they’d probably say Adele. But Adele does not combine the variety of disciplines that Britten did, a diversity that would provide the strongest possible evidence of the power and importance of music to all. Britten was a fantastic symbol of music’s potential to better humanity because he represented so many different aspects of this musical world. 

Yet without a platform, even a figure who did match Britten’s diversity would struggle to become a national icon. Whilst classical musicians are still trying their utmost to promote the accessibility, equality and openness of music in the manner of Britten, they seem to lack the public voice that gave such a platform to Benjamin Britten, and to Handel and Elgar before him.

What makes a Britten so necessary today is that he represented a time in which classical music occupied a central role in society. Whilst music, both then and now, tries to unite people in times of division – look at the ‘One Love’ concert in Manchester – classical musicians no longer seem to occupy a pivotal position in this. It is significant that, on that Manchester stage, not one classical musician appeared. This is at least in part a result of newspaper headlines that today favour a Britain’s Got Talent controversy rather than a Leonard Bernstein, and newspaper arts sections that diminish in size by the day. Whilst classical music used to feature heavily in newspaper columns and radio discussions, we must now travel ever more frequently to specialist music websites and journals to hear the same level of discussion about classical music. There are numerous individuals working tirelessly to promote classical music and to bridge divides, but they are not receiving the publicity they deserve. Their voices are confined to the musical circles that already support their beliefs.

However, it would be wrong to suggest classical music has diminished as an agent of change on the world stage solely because of a lack of mainstream media coverage. Alongside greater media support, classical composers must not be afraid to speak the language they find most truthful to them; with the growing recognition of film and game scores as legitimate forms of classical music, and the movement away from the hegemony of atonality and the accompanying belief that one must only write twelve-tone music to be taken seriously, I believe our musical integrity is improving. We must continue to pursue music as an honest reflection of what is within us, and not write what we feel we ought to. 

Once again, Britten perfectly captured this musical truthfulness; he wrote mostly tonal music at a time when the Darmstadt school was bringing dodecaphony and electronic music into the mainstream, a time when tonality was increasingly dismissed as backward. As Oliver Knussen argued, Britten, “rather than trying to do something new and different for its own sake, says something important with means that can communicate very directly. He deals with imponderables in a very commonsensical way.” 

And so, to be both artistically true to oneself as well as socially useful – is that not the purpose of music, after all? – composers must be strong enough to pursue their own individual goals, without fearing stigmatisation, whilst also trying to have some form of useful voice. Britten was strong enough to admit he was many things at a time when it was unconventional to be so: a pacifist in a time of war, a homosexual in a time of conservatism, a tonal composer in a time dominated by atonality. He was strong enough – and respected enough – to be himself.

As such, we need another Benjamin Britten - someone all people can identify with, and identify with classical music – as well as a mainstream media that gives greater attention to such figures. We need someone who can encapsulate both the freedom of music to say what one desires, as well the necessity of allowing such music to communicate something valuable to the broader public. British classical music needs a polymath public figurehead again.

Jack Pepper is an 18-year-old composer and writer from Surrey. Having written a fanfare for the Royal Opera House in 2016, he has since composed for Classic FM’S 25th birthday, in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic performed this commission in October 2017. His writing has appeared on the Gramophone and RPS blogs, and in Opera Today.