- Britten, Voice & Piano: Lectures on the Vocal Music of Benjamin Britten
The contents of this book began as pre-concert lectures for a series of recitals entitled Let the Florid Music Praise at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in November 2001, and were expanded by the author, Graham Johnson, for the present volume. The concert series was devised by Johnson, a renowned accompanist who is also Senior Professor of Accompaniment for the Guildhall, in order to immerse his student accompanists into the music of Benjamin Britten, one of Britain's premier composers, who was equally notable as a pianist and accompanist. The concerts and lectures were built around specific themes, so while the time span of Britten's compositional output is covered, the entire catalog of vocal music is not. In fact, in order to illustrate a particular theme, Johnson uses other chamber works hand-in-hand with the vocal music. For example, in Lecture 7, "Britten and Russia," Johnson includes performances and discussions of both the Third Suite for Cello, op. 87 and the Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, op. 65. The performers in this concert series were students from the Guildhall, ranging from undergraduates upwards, and used all the talents of the school's student accompanists. The volume includes two compact discs allowing the reader to listen to selected student performances of the compositions under discussion.
Graham Johnson's name is a familiar one, particularly to those involved in the study of vocal music. His Hyperion Schubert Edition, along with the French Song Edition on the same label, among countless other recordings are staples of any music library collection. His writings on vocal music provide insights for both the singer and the pianist, and this volume is no exception. Additionally, since the author was so closely associated with Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, he brings an understanding to the music that allows the reader to gain more in-depth access to the music. Perhaps what makes this particular book both appealing and useful stems from the fact that the "chapters" were originally lectures. The overall tone is accessible and clear, an "easy read" while full of insights on background and interpretation. At the same time, Johnson shares personal stories about Britten and Pears, their travels, dinner conversations, and so forth, along with numerous pop culture references, such as Harry Potter and The Talented Mr. Ripley, that reinforce the accessible quality of a set of lectures primarily aimed at students.
The first lecture takes the reader through Britten's childhood and youth, highlighting some of his earliest compositions. It also looks at the importance of his time spent studying with Frank Bridge, who impressed upon the young Britten the importance of being "nothing more, nor less, than himself" (p. 15). Lectures 2 and 7 explore the influences of foreign travel on Britten's music and his personal life. In the second lecture, "Britten Abroad: Italy, Poland, France, and Germany," Johnson examines Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, op. 49 and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, op. 22. The discussion of the Sonnets will prove enormously helpful to any performer learning this song cycle. In looking at how his continental travels influenced Britten's music, the author points to a comparison with Henry Purcell in that "the extravagance of Purcell's style derives in part from that composer's having had a similar openness to Europe as Britten possessed" (p. 35). Johnson's observation is made in light of the English tradition of one syllable per note as opposed to the more florid melismatic writing used by Britten which had been considered, by those composers of the English Musical Renaissance, to be "so affected and insincere as to be unthinkable" (p. 35). Lecture 7, "Britten and [End Page 737] Russia" focuses upon Britten and Peter Pears's friendship with Russian cellist Mistislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevkskaya, as well as offering a travelogue of...