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An excess of less? Critiquing Britten's late song cycles

Mark, CM (2013) An excess of less? Critiquing Britten's late song cycles In: Rethinking Britten. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 209-236.

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Britten’s later song cycles – by which I mean those composed after War Requiem: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965), The Poet’s Echo (1965), Who are these children? (1969), and A Birthday Hansel (1975) – are not amongst his most frequently performed and recorded, or, one suspects on the basis of this, his most loved works. Critical response has been varied. Evans and Whittall both accord them a good deal of space in their major writings on the composer and find much of value in them, whilst acknowledging in The Poet’s Echo a degree of ‘caution’ and even a degree of frigidity in the setting of the text, and in the Blake settings a degree of ‘despondency […] not of the easy kind in which audiences like to envelop themselves’. Robin Holloway, meanwhile, sees these song-cycles as being representative of what might be called ‘an excess of less’: 'whilst Curlew River was a unique triumph of paring down, there is a point where the paradox of less-because-more becomes strained; pregnant parsimony miscarries; the hungry sheep look up and are not fed. Much in his later music crosses this threshold: the conspicuous loss of sensuous surface in the later song-cycles, the grit and grind of the cello suites, the sourness of much of Children’s Crusade and much of Wingrave. Such music certainly seems to require more of us than it gives.' And in another context he writes of the sixties being ‘the drabbest decade in his output, with gritty cello suites, bleak cycles of Blake and Soutar, the steeply diminishing returns of the two church parables that followed Curlew River, the lack-lustre Voices for Today and the feeble Owen Wingrave’. The first part of this essay suggests reasons for the narrowing down. Firstly there was the matter of compositional identity. Britten was a highly competitive spirit, and if he felt he was in competition with a rising generation of English composers (Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle), and especially with Tippett, self-essentialization would not be surprising; and for the composer who avowed in 1963 that ‘to tear all the waste away’ was his aim, dogged pursuit of exactly this may seem inevitable. It might also be speculated that the need for the twin demands of stylistic renewal and continued communicability required an initial narrowing (followed in Death in Venice and other contemporary works by signs of a opening out). It can also be argued that biographical circumstances played a part. The sixties were a difficult decade for Britten: there seems to have been some sort of crisis regarding the attention accorded to War Requiem (this might have revolved around public expectation and the scrutiny of new pieces: it is known that some projects were scuppered after press speculation); he had equally ambiguous feelings about the establishment status that he had gradually acquired; there were increasing international demands and performing demands; there were the stresses of driving and developing the Aldeburgh Festival (including fire in 1969); and there were almost constant health concerns. The second part of the essay focuses on critique of the music, reviewing Evans’s and Whittall’s technical assessments and also placing the late song-cycles within the context of his song-writing in general and other works of the sixties. This will entail some discussion in technical terms, but with the broader readership for whom the volume is intended in mind.

Item Type: Book Section
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Department of Music and Media
Authors :
Mark, CM
Editors :
Rupprecht, P
Date : 2013
Additional Information : Full text may be available at a later date.
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 04 Nov 2014 11:42
Last Modified : 05 Mar 2019 10:14

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