Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Prom 70 Britten George Lloyd

If only the BBC would stop thinking in terms of anniversaries. A lot of people were born in 1913. That fact alone means nothing in itself. Late night BBC Prom 70 paired two composers born within months of each other : Benjamin Britten and George Lloyd, who lived until 1998. The contrast could hardly be greater, but the Prom was worth hearing because it raises ideas about the nature of art and originality.Music is not written by formula. Even composers well versed in theory write because they want to express something they can't verbalize. Danger signs, then, when composers think they can write by default, as if they were machines.

Britten wrote A Boy was Born when he was 19, when he was still a student. His urge to create was so great that he'd been writing music since he was five. Like so many creative children he was immersed in a kind of fantasy world, illustrating his music with drawings of little animals and proudly writing his name "E B Britten" on title pages as if he were an adult. Read more about Britten's juvenilia here. The picture above shows a toy Britten's teacher used to teach him the basics of theory. But Britten's music came from something deeper within.

In A Boy was Born (op 3) a basic theme is developed with six variations. The purity of inspiration is clear from the start. Britten is writing in the choral tradition, but the piece is not "of" tradition. the voices project and intertwine. Intense, dazzling brightness that expresses the "new Dawn" that the Nativity represents. Britten's making a very personal statement. Compare RVW's Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), a more sophisticated piece but also a breakthrough. because the composer was finding his individual voice. Already we can hear pointers to what Britten would do later: the balance between massed masculine voices and the plaintive cry of a child. It's more of a tone poem in words on Brittenesque preoccupations than a work of religious propriety. Listen to those "Noel, Noel, Noels" and the contrasting interjections from brighter, younger voices. The effect is almost raucous. I'll be lazy and quote a bit from the Hyperion booklet because that puts things so well. ".....If anyone influenced Britten’s thinking, apart from Frank Bridge, it was probably Alban Berg, and there is certainly something Viennese about the way Britten employs the devices of augmentation, inversion and the rest to vary his thematic motif." Britten would go on immersing himself in early music and renaissance English music in particular, but he never did pastiche.

Wonderful singing from The Temple Church Choir and the BBC Singers conducted by David Hill.

George Lloyd's Requiem was written when the composer was 85, when perhaps years of experience would have matured into a work with something worth saying.  It's a memorial to Princess Diana whose death the previous year traumatized the nation. The public mood was so intense that even The Queen noticed. Whoever Lloyd was reflecting upon, it wasn't the wild, troubled, iconic Diana who embraced AIDS victims and shock ! horror ! divorced the Prince of Wales. This Requiem is dutiful and correct, ticking all the right boxes - hushed choirs, and a cinematic organ (no discredit to the organist). There's a part for countertenor Iestyn Davies. That's particularly ironic, given that Britten did more than almost anyone else to integrate the voice type into modern, mainstream music. Unfortunately the piece feels put together as if written by textbook. Despite the well-intentioned performance, it's more Sibelius software than Sibelius (though Lloyd is nothing like Sibelius). 

There is no such thing as "renewable music". Music involves much more than rearranging notes and forms. It renews itself through the act of creation in the individual voice of a composer. Schoenberg created music despite his theories, which themselves arose from creative thinking on the nature of art. As so often, Wagner has the answer. Music can be written to order by formulae but the Hans Sachs of this world recognize true creativity. One of the problems with British music is that there's too much special pleading and chip-on-the-shoulder negativity.  Not long ago, the BBC did a series on Lloyd with a particularly whiney script. I listened carefully but the music didn't say nearly as much as the text did. There used to be a website listing details about the nursing homes and cremations of British composers so obscure that their music isn't even published. They might have been nice people, and no doubt Lloyd was a good man and meant well. But ultimately, it's the music that matters. Style doesn't matter, nor form, but what counts, I think, is that elusive spark of originality which marks a truly great composer.

No comments: