Wednesday 19 December 2012

So What’s So Great About Britten?


OK, I freely admit to being an uncultured  Philistine with cloth ears – but this week I have struggled a little to fully appreciate the music of Benjamin Britten. It is his centenary next year, and this year marks 70 years since he wrote his Ceremony of Carols.

He wrote this on board ship, crossing the Atlantic, during WW2. As a Conscientious Objector, he’d hopped off to the USA in the 1930s, but returned 3 years later.

Now maybe the sea crossing was difficult, maybe he was anxious about what would await his return to Blighty – but I am afraid I just did not get on with this Carolling. I should make it quite clear that the musicians who performed the piece on Sunday were excellent – it is no reflection on their talents- but the medieval english words set to 20th century music just did not do it for me.

alice duchess tenniel“Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves” said the Duchess to Alice. But this felt in places as if BB had made so much fuss of the sounds, that the words made no sense at all at some points.

There was one section where I was convinced the choir kept repeating “His moustache is fixed, his - must – ash- is - fixed!”


I am sure that cannot be right, because Movember was last month! Ah well, each to his own. I trust that the people who parked their cars blocking our car in enjoyed the concert.

[We had to leave promptly because Bob was preaching in the evening – he made it to church with 3 minutes to spare]

Expecting a load of comments now, from all of you who think BB is the best composer on the planet. I shall hide behind Stravinsky, who who was annoyed that BB’s music wasn't really allowed to be criticized, because, in criticizing it, he felt one would "be made to feel if one had failed to stand up for 'God Save the Queen.'"

[I do still stand for the Anthem when I am in a place where it is being sung – but since 1995 have stayed seated when it is played on TV or radio]


  1. I admit to loving "A Ceremony of Carols," but my children certainly do not. I wonder, though, if his is the only ceremony of carols? The one I listen to is sung by the Boys Choir of Kings' College, and I look forward to it every year.


  2. I'm a harpist so I live 'up close and personal' to this particular piece...! I've got to say that I love the clever way that he writes for the harp BUT it's not exactly my 'Christmas Number One'! I prefer John Rutter... Jx

  3. I have it playing on Youtube as I type this as I am not familiar with it. It's not my cup of tea either.


  4. I am more of a John Rutter girl too...

  5. I adore both Britten AND Stravinsky! I don't think Ceremony is his best work! Young Person's guide to the orchestra is brilliant- I spend a half term studying it with my Year 4's- they adore it by the end of the half-term (not so far had any child who doesn't like it by the end)- it's getting a foot in and understanding what he's doing with his materials that makes them engage.

    I also played for the opera Peter Grimes last year, which has 4 GORGEOUS sea-interludes in it, that are so wonderfully evocative of the sea (especially the 1st one).
    But each to their own- I appreciate him from the point of view of how wonderful his instrumental writing is- he really gets the instrument! I, for example, can't STAND Elgar, whereas many of my fellow musicians are shocked at my dislike!
    However, Stravinky is the DUDE!

  6. Replies
    1. oops I meant 1992. It was the separation of Charles and Diana!

  7. Another Rutter fan here ... Britten somehow never clicked for (with?) me. Honestly, I think mid-20th century composers were working at a disadvantage. Modernism had rendered beauty and harmony obsolete, placing dissonance on a quite undeserved pedestal. Ugh. And we're not out of the musical woods yet - it seems that most of the "new" commissioned carols are quite dreadful, mainly due to a misplaced fear of straightforward tunes and an avoidance of major chords. I suppose I have cloth ears too - or have been spoilt by the elegancies of Baroque and the straightforward loveliness of earlier English carols. :)


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