A break from tradition

Benjamin Britten was a war-time composer from England. One of the major differences between him and his contemporaries from other countries is that he was free from oppressive dictates from the government. While music like other art forms is often a reflection of one’s surroundings, Britten was also free to express those influences in whatever way he chose. Many times his expression broke with what his contemporaries were doing. Elgar and Vaughn Williams personified what embodied a great English composer. Britten made a conscious effort to break from what he considered the complacent, narrow-minded, and amateurish mainstream of English music. This resulted in several outcomes. Britten’s music was harder for the general public to relate to at first, which in turn made his music more obscure. It was a little too new for people. Given these set backs there are some redeeming qualities that helped to propel Britten’s music forward. Eventually Britten would be recognized as one of the greatest English composers.

Britten was a prolific composer. From his childhood onward he could sit down and produce pages of score. He could meet deadlines. While he may not have found great acclaim in the musical realm of his time, his ability to produce works with efficiency befriended him with producers. This ability also lent itself well to the developing technology of the time. It was not long after each of his works premiered that they were recorded. This made his music readily available to the younger generation. Another saving grace was his break from traditional music. From many different influences he was able to create a distinct sound in his music. While this sound did not produce an immediate resonance with audiences it would come to be known at the “Britten sound.”

One aspect that should not be overlooked it that Britten was the foremost composer of English opera. He brought recognition and respect to that musical genre that had not been approached for years. While his operas made him famous his orchestral works also carried the mark of genius.

But it was in the context of war that Britten wrote his violin concerto. Britten started the concerto just before he left England for America as a conscientious objector. The violin concerto is one of only a few concertos Britten wrote. He also wrote it in a time when violin concertos were very popular. What sets this concerto apart is again that distinctive Britten sound. Britten was able to fuse his influences into seamless and unique masterpieces. At times it seems you are listening to a Spanish march. Other times Stravinskyesque phrases can be heard. The violin concerto combines virtuosic brilliance with nostalgic lyricism. Indeed the contrast is somewhat unexpected but not wholly out of place. Like so many other composers who produced in times of conflict this concerto reflects turbulent times in a way uniquely Britten.

Britten’s violin concerto will be performed by concertmaster Ralph Matson at Utah Symphony’s November 21 and 22 performance entitled Shostakovich’s Response.

Shostakovich’s Response
November 21 & 22, 2008 @ 8 PM
Abravanel Hall
Keith Lockhart, conductor
Ralph Matson, violin

Learn more and buy tickets online at utahsymphony.org >>

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  • Well-written, Emma. You make a good point about his significance in the area of opera. In fact, he was really the only English opera composer since Henry Purcell who lived in the late 17th C. Over 200 years of hiatus in the area of opera from one of our most significant European colleagues.