Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, Gavril Popov, Giuseppe Verdi, Rejoice In The Lamb, Richard Wagner, Sergei Prokofiev, Stalin, Tikhon Khrennikov, Variations on a Theme of Paganini, War Requiem, Witold Lutoslawski, Zhdanov
I do not set great store by composer anniversaries, but they can be useful for planning lectures or concert programmes. 2013 will be the year of those two great opera composers of the nineteenth century, Wagner and Verdi, both born in 1813. I was delighted to realise yesterday that it will also be the centenary of the births both of Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski. Any passing readers of this blog will know that I am a huge admirer of Witold’s work, and believe him to be one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and that I harbour similar feelings for Britten.
Britten was the greatest British composer of his generation, and it has to be said that his generation was ferociously talented. The growing realisation that he had been outflanked by this young upstart rather took the wind out of William Walton’s sails, although, to be fair, I would have felt exactly the same. Walton was very much the insider to Britten’s aloof and cool outsider. BB was also, lest we forget, a phenomenal conductor as well, although he felt happier with smaller groups, hence his conducting of the chamber orchestra in the first performance of the War Requiem rather than the larger ensemble.
It is his writing for amateurs which I find particularly thrilling, however. Works such as Rejoice In The Lamb is brilliantly – I’ll say that again – brilliantly written for non-professional singers and musicians. Britten takes one element of the music, such as the rhythm, melody or metre, and makes it tricky while keeping other elements simple and allies this to rock-solid technique to produce works which are unpatronising to perform and to hear, perfectly pitched. I always use his approach as a template when writing for non-pros myself.
As for Witold, I have written at length elsewhere, but here again was a man who resolutely followed his own path, unswayed by musical fashion and passing fads, developing a personal and distinct style which embraced all aspects of his work. Along the way he also became a figurehead for the Polish nation, which is quite something for somebody who avoided political posturing. You will not find specific titles in his works, rather the idea that music has a broader sweep and a grander design.
Both of these titans’ styles can be difficult when they are at their most modern, but even those who “like a tune” can find things to admire in their output. Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini and Britten’s Rejoice In The Lamb are great places to start, and never ever pass up an opportunity to see Peter Grimes, the greatest British opera of the twentieth century.
One composer whose centenary I shall not be celebrating is the odious Tikhon Khrennikov. This repugnant bully, Stalin’s enthusiastic musical enforcer, was unrepentant and obfuscatory to the end about what he did to the likes of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and many other tragic composers whose names have simply been erased from history, their music either destroyed or stolen. Whenever I listen to the technicolour riot that is Gavril Popov’s 1st Symphony and think of this massive talent destroyed by Zhdanov (another thoroughly nasty piece of work) and Khrennikov, I feel a mixture of sadness, anger and pity. Popov, destroyed and broken, eventually drank himself into silence, but at least his name is still on some very obscure CDs. Many, many others literally disappeared into the night.
Khrennikov deserves to suffer the same fate as those he persecuted into anonymous oblivion. I have never been in a position where I have had to perform any of his pieces, but I doubt that I could ever bring myself to play a note of “his” (for we are generously assuming here that he wrote his own later works), safe in the knowledge that this man’s mature talent was inversely proportional to his vindictiveness and spite. However, I urge you to make up your own mind and read further. Khrennikov’s official webiog (remember where you first saw that word) is here while his Guardian obituary is here. They make for rather different reading, and I know which truth I believe.