It was almost Buxtehude, not Purcell, who at the end of the 1930s cast a lifelong spell on Britten. In September 1939 the young Englishman was holed up in a friend’s house on Long Island, having left his homeland in spring of that year, wary of Europe’s decay, certain of its fate, and having no stomach for the fight. The setting is important: the bleak, appealing isolation of Amityville; the lovely, cultured family of Hitler émigrés with whom Britten was living; even the friend listening to him sight-read his way through the pile of scores, Buxtehude among it, owned by these same lovely, cultured émigrés: poet W.H. Auden. The timing is important, too: it was in the weeks around the German invasion of Poland, Auden capturing the start of hostilities in his most famous poem, which he wrote in a dive on Fifty-second Street, Britten’s premonitions of Europe’s fate sadly borne out, at least for the moment.
So it is Buxtehude, not Purcell, who, in an Auden poem almost as famous as ‘September 1, 1939’, makes a sudden, unexpected appearance. In this Auden snapshot, sunlight floods through the windows of the Amityville house, illuminating the score of a Buxtehude passacaglia on the music stand. Auden included it as a sullen rebuke, from the cradle of the Enlightenment to the heart of contemporary Germany, with its barbarous politics and ghastly warmongering: here’s order, here’s skill, Buxtehude seems to say. (A few years later, in Peter Grimes, the Rector will use these same words to describe Peter’s empty hut, the indignant townsfolk having marched up there looking for answers, they tell themselves, though really they were only ever baying for blood.) It is a beautiful poem, a poignant poem. Yet even this late in their friendship Britten remained shy in Auden’s company, so ‘New Year Letter (January 1, 1940)’ does not capture what Britten so admired in Buxtehude’s music – the wildness, the sense of formal danger, the inability at any single moment to predict what comes next. This music thrilled Britten – for its un- Bachness, its refusal to cleave to the rules that Bach’s genius and the period’s conventions demanded, or at least to break with these conventions as often as he honoured them.
It is something more than this, though. Britten was conservative in manner, dress, taste, and even in his approach to the relationship he had begun with Peter Pears early that same year, a quasi marriage that would wear well, despite the different prism through which Pears came to view it. For these reasons Buxtehude was the perfect mentor, the sort of composer to whom a rule-abider could look as he worked out how to become a rule-breaker.
But war engendered homesickness, and distance evoked in Britten something close to Baudelaire’s great line about how people can be nostalgic for a land they’ve never actually known. Purcell, whose music was familiar to scholars and antiquarians, but hardly to English musicians only a few years out of college, fulfilled both roles: he was a rule-breaker himself, but in 1939 had the singular advantage of being someone who broke rules in Britten’s mother tongue. So as Britten’s Old World certainties were replaced by New World frustrations, Purcell ended up the neater fit for him than Buxtehude. It is not clear how he knew his music: his friendship with the remarkable Imogen Holst, a Purcell scholar and enthusiast, was still a few years away. And it doesn’t seem that his great teacher Frank Bridge revelled in Purcell’s music as he did that of so many others. But here Purcell now was: not in Auden’s poetry, alas, but in Amityville, in Britten’s life, in Pears’s repertory.
In a nice piece for the Sadler’s Wells guide to his first grand opera, Britten – whose written prose could be as tortuous as his spoken words, though with the wind behind him on this occasion – explained precisely why Purcell seemed so important just then. At the time of writing he was unaware of the historical impact Grimes was to have, how it would effect his transformation from bright youth to grand master, but as he set about explaining what he had wanted to achieve in the opera he was happy enough to take a shot at all those English composers who had followed Purcell, with so little to show for themselves. ‘One of my chief aims,’ he writes, ‘is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom, and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell ...’ Then the list of the crimes of these successive English composers: subservience to speech rhythms at the expense of wild, rhetorical declamations; a lack of poetry in the music; a lack of emotion in the words, which they left to die slowly on the page. It is great and right, every sentence, but it reads a little strange from a composer who had spent much of the previous decade hostage to established forms, no matter how exhilaratingly he kicked at the chains, often at Auden’s insistence. Nonetheless, the impact of Purcell’s music on Britten’s compositions was immense: his Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940) and Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945) would have been difficult to write without it, his series of five Canticles inconceivable. Similarly, Britten’s role in the revival of Purcell’s music was no less significant.
Eventually, it was a natural fit, but was Britten Purcell’s best advocate, Pears his best contemporary interpreter? Prickly, defensive, righteous, gay, pacifist, conchie, insider-outsider and left-leaning to boot (but a rule-abider!), Britten was not actually terribly well placed to take on a campaign to resurrect a largely forgotten composer. But he enjoyed the ride, not least as he rubbished those who followed Purcell, men (to a man) who gave English music the little self-respect it could muster in the fallow centuries. There was something completely enthralling in both the way he went in to battle, Pears at his side, and the works that resulted, all those realisations Britten scribbled with such haste and brilliance between 1939 and 1971. He undertook them as quick-work therapy – a welcome breather between big gigs or while large-scale works gnawed away at his conscience or demanded more immediate attention – but so too did they act as a compositional primer, a way of Britten staying true to the sentiments he outlined in 1945 in his words about Grimes.
This combination of therapy and tuition helps explain the two key periods of Britten’s Purcell activity – not simply as represented on these discs, but in life as well: the 1940s and 1960s. The first decade belonged to the evangelist, the second to the obsessive, the composer who feared he had lost his way and sought the answer in the early teachings of Bridge and the eternal example of Purcell: a paring down of each score to its essentials, which Purcell did so well, he thought. Or perhaps this undersells what Purcell actually pulled off in his songs, for he also coated them in a brilliant sheen, one that brought out the opulence and structure of the language amid free-fall melodic writing. For settings stuffed with so many notes, the songs are remarkably lean.
Yet Purcell’s lesson was either hard learned or somehow ignored as the 1960s progressed, at least in Britten’s own original scores. He pared these down so much that neither skeleton nor skin was always so easy to distinguish; a gloop of fine varnish would at times have been most welcome. So there is something wholly explicable about him working away at Purcell realisations throughout the 1960s, paying tribute, of course, but also refining his technical language, reminding himself of a time when it all came so easily, anticipating the breathtakingly good music he would write, once more, in the 1970s, with neither time nor health on his side.
Even though there were two centuries separating the two English composers, theatre gave them a strong bond. Purcell scrapped away at incidental music for plays in the 1690s as assiduously as Britten did in the late 1930s – for leftist theatre groups (Auden as ringmaster), cinema, the BBC (some pretty dreary religious cantatas among his commissions). These were hardly wasted apprenticeships, for each man would write his masterpiece for the opera stage, Purcell Dido and Aeneas (Britten and Holst making a fine realisation of it in 1950–1 for the English Opera Group), Britten Billy Budd. The reason these operas work so well is their sheer theatricality – not simply in their beautifully calibrated narrative arcs, but in the dramatic rhetoric of individual scenes and arias. This is the source of the energy thrumming through these songs and realisations.
Call a piece ‘Mad Bess’ and you’ll end up with a scena not a song. And so it is with Bess of Bedlam who in Purcell’s and Britten’s hands unloosens herself of her wild dreams and fears and visions, as delirious as poor Grimes at the end of his opera, or Christopher Smart, the holy fool whose words gave Britten in this decade another of his great mad scenes, Rejoice in the Lamb of 1943. (Smart’s confinement in the mid-eighteenth century was not in Bedlam but in the splendidly named St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, Bethnal Green; the differences between institutions were probably few.) It is a little difficult to tell whether it is Bess’s head or her heart that is broken, though the distinction is tragically moot. Regardless of Bess’s malady, Britten enjoys both the courtly moments of delusion (Bess will be mourned by raven and cat, owl and bat, she tells us earnestly) and the frantic presentiments of death – much as he would almost thirty years later in one of his greatest works, Phaedra, composed a year before his death, Purcell very much in the frame.
In a similar vein, and given its ubiquity today, it is easy to forget just how sad and bold is a song like ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’. Victim of Britten’s popularising arrangement and music syllabi the world over, the song is nonetheless a cry of feverish pain, a desperate evocation of the destructive pangs of love, regardless of the neatly drawn rhythmic lines within which it plays out. This is perhaps why songs like ‘In the black dismal dungeon of despair’ (which does pretty much what is written on the tin) work so well: they defy simple, cute appropriation. All of these such songs – ‘Job’s curse’, a terrific bit of biblical tub- thumpery, which checklists unborn babes, the highly monarch and the lowly snail, and the thick veil of gloomy darkness surrounding the protagonist – have their counterpoint in the tributes to straightforward, reciprocated love between man and woman: ‘Man is for the woman made’, say, or ‘Sweeter than roses’. The fecund family man Purcell found these sentiments and liaisons easier to capture in his music than did Britten, his own works enjoying instead the dangerous, complicated, ecstatic love between men, rarely giving flight to his women – as opera characters, certainly, but also as thinking, feeling individuals in his concert works and songs. (Phaedra is a stunning exception.)
Purcell had quite the ragbag of interests, then: religion (‘Saul and the witch at Endor’), sorcery (ditto), monarchy and politics (‘The Queen’s Epicedium’), England (‘Fairest isle’, Dryden’s words for Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur), music or the muses (‘Music for a while’). Perhaps these are the eternal themes of poets and composers, but it is striking that they were still resonating so strongly when Britten made his first Purcell realisations. (Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia of 1942 is an obvious tribute to Purcell’s work of similar name, though its handiest debt really is to the vocal impersonation of instruments Purcell conjures in his duet ‘Sound the trumpet’, a thrilling bit of musical morphism.) Yet these are some of the ideas beaded through Auden’s poetry, after all, to the extent that it really is surprising that, for once, the overbearing poet was not responsible for bringing Purcell to Britten’s attention, as he did Donne, Smart, Melville and more besides. And these same ideas crop up in different guises in Britten’s works for opera house and concert hall (sorcery aside: Britten disliked supernatural explanations for craven human behaviour, though his affection for the church of his boyhood often overruled such scepticism, letting through some rather wonderful texts and topics). So perhaps Britten’s appropriation of Purcell’s world is not so surprising.
Throughout his realisations, Britten plays the courteous guest to Purcell’s generous host. Sometimes too much so: the wonderful-weird accompaniment to ‘Music for a while’ is notable for its singularity, Britten using the ground bass as an anchor while he flies and dances above in lovely rhetorical flourishes, never more so than when the snakes drop, drop, drop from Alecto’s head. This accompaniment aside, there is little of the gleeful abandon with which Britten realized John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1949) – arias cut, transposed and juxtaposed, the accompaniment a wild bramble patch of harmonies. But he was clear on why this was so, why he was less interventionist in Purcell than in Gay. Ten years after completing The Beggar’s Opera, twenty years after making his first Purcell setting, Britten articulated his thoughts on the matter of Purcell’s songs: ‘Since the accompaniments were originally intended to be improvised, they must be personal and immediate – and we know only too well how ephemeral fashions are, how quickly tastes change, so each generation must want its own realisations.’ Britten then explains his own rules and thinking: stick to the bass and harmonies prescribed by the figured bass; fill gaps, but only with material that has a decent chance of fitting happily on Purcell’s palette; keep in mind the texture of a harpsichord, the difference between plucked and hammered strings, and how best the one can replicate the other; honour the form of the song, the mood of the words. Above all, Britten concludes, avoid creative dullness, the reverence that had strangled Purcell’s music for centuries, he implies rather strongly. ‘Purcell would have hated these two qualities above all,’ he writes, before adding a typically modest disclaimer, ‘at least, that is the feeling one has after getting to know him through even these few works.’
Author of Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, published by Penguin