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  • Beyond Britten: The Composer and the Community ed. by Peter Wiegold and Ghislaine Kenyon
  • Justin Vickers
Beyond Britten: The Composer and the Community. Ed. by Peter Wiegold and Ghislaine Kenyon. pp. xiv + 298. Aldeburgh Studies in Music. (Boydell Press, Woodbridge and Rochester. NY, 2015. £45. ISBN 978-1-84383-965-1.)

The Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies honoured Benjamin Britten with its inaugural 1964 award in recognition of his service to music. Later the same year, Faber & Faber published Britten's Aspen speech under the title: The Composer's Place', beneath which the subtitle 'On Receiving the First Aspen Award' was printed. Following the international success of the 1962 War Requiem, Op. 66, and the subsequent 1963 release of the Decca recording, Britten—who had effectively captured the sentiments of a world still reeling from the experiences of a century at war and the (seemingly continuous) process of grieving—was a highly appropriate first recipient of the Aspen Award. In the opening phrases of his speech, he positions himself within the community—'it is the composer's duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings'—and expresses his belief in the occasional music that he conceived for very specific events, artists, and indeed the audience members themselves (p. 9).

The current volume emerged from discussions during the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, and has been edited by the composer and conductor Peter Wiegold and the author and curator Ghislaine Kenyon. The contributors to the collection include not just composers—although most are—but also music educators, instrumentalists, general and artistic directors, conductors, broadcasters, researchers, and publishers (and every conceivable crossover therein). The twenty chapters, including a reprint of Britten's speech, are approachable, and draw the reader into conversations with Britten. (The editors seem to have assigned sections of Britten's speech to individual authors, in an attempt to address it comprehensively across the volume; an appealing cohesion results from the assortment of voices.) Four of the chapters comprise transcriptions of interviews undertaken by Wiegold and Amoret Abis with James Redwood, Katie Tearle, Harrison Birtwistle, Philip Cashian, John Woolrich, and John Sloboda.

As its title indicates, the book draws attention to a specific aspect of Britten's 1964 speech: how a composer relates to his or her community. Such a relationship is largely predicated on what Britten deems a 'holy triangle of composer, performer and listener' (p. 13), eliciting [End Page 317] a magic that occurs only 'when the listener is one with the composer, either as a performer himself, or as a listener in active sympathy' (p. 12). Jonathan Reekie, former Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Music (1998–2014), navigates 'Britten's Holy Triangle' at the conclusion of the book: this is a fitting place to land after (re) reading the Aspen lecture precisely because it situates the reader centrally in Britten's composer—performer—listener configuration.

Colin Matthews offers a rich contextualization and evaluation of Britten's Aspen speech. He breaks the text into its eight constituent parts, and provides compelling evidence from Britten's life to suggest the rationale for its substance. He also draws on John Evans's Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten, 1923–1938 (London, 2009) and the fifth volume of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913–1976, edited by Philip Reed, Mervyn Cooke, and Donald Mitchell (Woodbridge, 2010), to establish that Peter Pears was instrumental in the composition of the Aspen speech.

The volume is flush with perspectives on the intersectionality of composer and audience, and repeatedly probes the question as to whether it is the responsibility of a composer to write for her or his audience—and by natural extension the community in which she or he lives. Perspectives range from Birtwistle's unashamed lack of interest in hearing amateur ensembles engage in music-making (even if he concedes that they may gain a great deal from the experience) and composing downward to the lowest common denominator when seeking an audience base; to Cashian's eschewing of the audience as a consideration when composing (his concern is for himself alone); to the moving...


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