Benjamin Britten is widely thought of as one of the finest composers that Britain has ever produced. Yet his relationship with much of the music of his native country was terse to say the least. Ahead of our first Concert Club event on the theme of English music, we look at Britten and the music that influenced him.

Photograph of Benjamin Britten by Frank Wild, 1968 © Public Domain
Photograph of Benjamin Britten by Frank Wild, 1968
© Public Domain

Though often regarded as part and parcel of British musical heritage, Britten was known –particularly in his early years – to be rather disdainful of other British composers, particularly his contemporaries and near-contemporaries. Ralph Vaughan Williams, to the young Britten, propagated a brand of parochial pastoralism that was at odds with the Modernist European repertoire he was absorbing at the time. In a letter following a 1935 broadcast of Vaughan Williams’ work he wrote, “I have never felt more depressed for English music,” and a year later Britten and his friend Lennox Berkeley reportedly whiled away a whole afternoon mocking a study score for Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. Much ire was reserved for Elgar, too. It was a stormy relationship that began when Britten was 15, after he attended a performance of Elgar’s music at Queen’s Hall: “Elgar Second Symphony. Dreadful nobilmente semplice. I came out after 3rd movement – so bored,” he wrote in his diary. By 1931, this opinion had hardened even more, as illustrated by the comment, “I am absolutely incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes.” A few years later it was worse: “Certainly the best way to make me like Elgar is to listen to him after Vaughan Williams.” Ouch.

But were there any living British composers that Britten admired and took influence from during his formative years? Holst, it appears, received a somewhat better treatment than his contemporaries. Britten admired how the older composer looked further afield to Asian music for his influences, and how he avoided what he saw as other British composers’ over-reliance on folksong. Delius, too, was alright in Britten’s book, with the young composer declaring Delius’ Brigg Fair to be “delicious” in 1931. Britten also had a soft spot for William Walton, whose searing First Symphony can be seen performed here by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Clearly, however, the English music of Britten’s day – even that which he expressed admiration for – was something of a peripheral influence. So how can we begin to unpick the threads of his work?

One way would be to go back to Britten’s early life and tuition. At the age of fourteen Britten – who was already a precocious musical prodigy and had composed over 100 pieces – was sent to study with the composer Frank Bridge, whose tone poem The Sea had already left quite an impression on the young composer. However, it could be said that the influence Bridge would have on Britten was more a matter opening his mind to other types of music, rather than having a direct effect on his compositional style. It was through Bridge that Britten first became acquainted with Debussy and Ravel, something that biographers cite as a major turning point in Britten’s conception of orchestral sound. Besides the introduction to European music, Bridge also instilled in the young composer a sense of being true to one’s own artistic impulses. “In everything he did for me,” Britten later said, “there were perhaps above all two cardinal principles. One was that you should try to find yourself and be true to what you found. The other was his scrupulous attention to good technique, the business of saying clearly what was in one’s mind.” Ten years after first going to study with Bridge, Britten wrote his Variations On A Theme Of Frank Bridge, a confident and inventive tribute to his old tutor. Years later, some critics would posit a sense of Bridge’s influence in the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes – not least in the structure and titles of the movements of the piece. See for yourself in this performance of the interludes by the Gürzenich Orchestra.

Sketch of Alban Berg by Emil Stumpp, 1927 © Public Domain
Sketch of Alban Berg by Emil Stumpp, 1927
© Public Domain
Bridge is also credited with introducing Britten to the Modernist aesthetic of the Second Viennese School, and the music of its leading lights Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. While studying at the Royal College of Music, Britten asked the faculty to put a copy of Schoenberg’s avant garde cabaret Pierrot Lunaire in the library, a request that was roundly refused. To get a feel for the radicalism of that work, check out this performance by members of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. One can see how, against this unabashed experimentalism, the English pastoral style would have seemed the less exciting option for the young Britten. Berg was perhaps an even greater luminary for the young composer. In 1934 Britten heard his ambitious, disturbing opera Wozzeck, an experience which left his head spinning: “Only the third Act, and bits of the second, was intelligible. The music of this is extraordinarily striking without the action,” he wrote at the time. Britten won a scholarship to study with Berg – a move which Frank Bridge had suggested – but the RCM staff and Britten’s mother were against the idea and put a stop to it. The interest in Berg’s music continued, however: in 1936, while in Barcelona, Britten heard Berg’s Violin Concerto, which can be seen performed here by Alina Pogostkina and the Gothenburg Symphony. The composer’s death in the previous year left a great mark on Britten, and he wrote during that time that “The real musicians are so few and far between, aren’t they? Apart from the Bergs, Stravinskys, Schoenbergs and Bridges one is a bit stumped for names, isn’t one?”

Portrait of Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik, 1902 © Public Domain
Portrait of Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik, 1902
© Public Domain
Evidently, it was European music that formed the larger part of Britten’s listening and received the most of his admiration. And one composer, particularly neglected in Britain until at least the 1960s, stands out among the rest. Britten first heard Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in 1930, a piece for which he later claimed to hold “more genuine affection for than any other piece in the world.” Britten was impressed with the orchestral nuances evident in Mahler’s work, as well as the cohesive nature of his symphonies. He declared that Mahler’s Fourth was “entirely clean and transparent, the material remarkable, the melodic shapes highly original, with such rhythmic and harmonic tension from beginning to end.” One can see the attention to orchestral detail and colour that Britten so admired in this performance by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Britten also took from Mahler the idea of using chamber music within a symphonic orchestral work, a technique which allowed for moments of greater fragility and focus and which can be seen in the chamber music sections of Britten’s War Requiem of 1962. Britten also held a great love for Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which can be seen performed here by Markus Stenz and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic. Even more than the symphonies, though, Britten loved Mahler’s song settings, saying of Das Lied von der Erde: “It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful.”

Portrait of Purcell, attributed to John Closterman © Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Purcell, attributed to John Closterman
© Wikimedia Commons
As we’ve seen, Britten largely looked to the continent for his influence. But Britten’s native land was not completely barren in terms of artistic inspiration. He just had to look further back, to the Baroque period, and in particular the work of Henry Purcell. Purcell was considered the last great English-born composer before the arrival of the likes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and given Britten’s disdain for those composers, one can see how the composer came to fixate on this past master. Purcell’s influence manifests most keenly in Britten’s vocal writing: like the Baroque composer, Britten wrote complex, digressional vocal lines, and also worked to restore the standing of the English vernacular in opera, as he wrote: “One of my chief aims is to try to restore to the musical setting of the English Language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell.” It was also through Purcell that Britten resurrected such archaic forms as the chaconne and passacaglia. His Second String Quartet, for example, makes use of the former. Britten longed to promote what he saw as Purcell’s genius to a greater number of people, creating new performing versions of the early opera Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen masque. What’s more, he also set about creating a number of “realisations” of Purcell’s songs, embellishing new harmonies onto the bare bones of the Baroque composer’s vocal and bass lines. Intended to be performed by Britten’s professional and personal partner, the tenor Peter Pears, the realizations ranged from the relatively minimal (such as his work on the songs of Purcell’s King Arthur) to the ambitious setting of “Music for a While”, which used sound effects to realise the cracking whips of the song’s text. Perhaps most famous of all, however, is Britten’s use of a theme from Purcell’s Abdelazer suite for his 1945 composition The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, a piece which has gone on to become a staple of children’s music education. Head to Bachtrack At Home on 14th September, when the Bergen Philharmonic will live stream a performance of the work, alongside Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Many other currents would figure in Britten’s aesthetic throughout the course of his career. His work in film tightened his compositional style and encouraged him to introduce a greater sense of narrative to his work. Similarly, such varied influences as Japanese Noh theatre and medieval mystery plays would come to bear on his operatic pursuits. Though cantankerous in regard to other English composers, Britten nevertheless retained an omnivorous approach to music, allowing him to assimilate the plethora of styles that helped him become one of England’s best-loved composers.