Despite growing up during a 1970s pop and rock music era which borrowed heavily from classical music, I took some time to develop an interest in that classical music. While that interest has remained fairly narrow, it has long included Benjamin Britten.
Some of my interest in Britten, I confess, comes from extra-musical areas.
For example, his left-wing politics. During my 20s, as both artistic and political interests developed, I was always particularly fascinated in the points where they joined : works of art on political subjects or which had a political impact, artists who were politically active. Britten was more subtle in his political practice than others, like his friend and collaborator W.H.Auden, but works like War Requiem were a significant part of the interest I formed in him.
Another was his setting up of the Aldeburgh Festival. This emphasised that Britten was not just a believer in the idea of the arts as social and community events, but someone who was willing to spend time and effort to bring them about.
Another area of interest was his use of literary texts in his music. The most famous example was the use of Wilfred Owen poetry in War Requiem but he also adapted writing by Auden, Donne, Rimbaud, Blake, Tennyson, Keats and many others.
Finally, even a shallow knowledge of his music couldn’t fail to be impressed by its range, and especially the vocal and choral work. The song cycles which featured the aforementioned writers; the church music; the reworkings of traditional songs; operas like the dark and melancholy Peter Grimes whose plot and atmosphere seemed so alluringly similar to other things I had loved elsewhere like Fairport Convention’s Babbacombe Lee album or the Christmas ghost stories on TV with their rural Victorian settings.
There are several similarities between Britten and the still very active James MacMillan.
Like Britten, MacMillan could be said to have charted and mined a rich seam which drew from both the mainstream and avant-garde classical musics of his period.
Like Britten, he has been prolific, writing vocal and instrumental compositions for small and large groups. He too draws both from traditional music and from sacred and liturgical music, in the latter especially from medieval forms. Many of his compositions, like Britten’s, are designed to include amateur and community participants.
My memory of early acquaintance of MacMillan’s politics is that they were attractively left wing from an internationalist perspective. Supportive of the ideas of Catholic liberation theology, he used the letters of the Argentine group Mothers of the Disappeared in his work Búsqueda and similar Latin American texts in Cantos Sagrados. Shortly after, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie focussed on the 17th century case of a woman executed for alleged witchcraft, and by extension, MacMillan has said, on contemporary witch-hunts and persecution.
In recent years, he could be said to have become politically more conservative. As a self-confessed Celtic fan, although brought up in Ayrshire, he has sometimes become drawn into discussions about a perceived anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland. His interest in reviving Latin church music, although a valuable artistic project, could be said to be a rather elitist one which might not help the Catholic church to engage the younger generations who were not brought up with the pre-Vatican II traditions.
As argued in an earlier post, there has been a significant loss of confidence in the value of classical music on television since the time of Britten’s death in 1976. Britten’s 1971 opera Owen Wingrave was written specially for television while my own very first acquaintance with the name of Benjamin Britten was a TV version of Billy Budd being shown in the late 1960s on Christmas Eve on BBC1 – alarming to a child looking for more lightweight entertainment but proof of how substantial (and how mainstream) a piece of music and drama it was judged to be.
The success of MacMillan’s breakthrough work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was certainly helped by the BBC screening of its Proms premiere in 1990 and the corporation premiered his cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross during Holy Week in 1994. Around the same time, I remember MacMillan presenting a programme of Arvo Pärt religious music on BBC2 on a Good Friday evening.
However, although his music has continued to be performed and praised in the twenty years since, MacMillan has unfortunately tended to gain more mainstream media attention for extra-musical contributions such as his comments about the aforementioned perceived anti-Catholic prejudice. I suspect that coverage of Britten during his lifetime concentrated on his music, although posthumously of course that has changed somewhat.