- Benjamin Britten and Russia by Cameron Pyke
Cameron Pyke notes in the preface to Benjamin Britten and Russia that he was born on the day Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears arrived in Moscow during their last visit to Russia in 1971. Nine years later, Britten’s Te Deum in C Major was the first piece Pyke sang as a choirboy. Britten’s music ran “as something of a thread” (p. x) through Pyke’s school days long before he connected Britten’s love of Russian music with his own. This “cultural ‘Russophilia’ ” (p. xi) of both author and subject forms the heart of the present volume. In it, Pyke examines the origins and development of Britten’s interest in Russia over more than fifty years, from Britten’s first documented acquisition of a Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky score in 1925, to Praise We Great Men, a piece left incomplete at the time of Britten’s death that he intended for Mstislav Rostropovich to conduct in exile in America.
Various aspects of Britten’s interest in Russia—in particular his friendships with Rostropovich, Dmitrii Shostakovich, and Galina Vishnevskaı͡a—have been the subjects of previous research. Although Pyke notes the pioneering work of Donald Mitchell, Eric Roseberry, and Lı͡udmila Kovnat͡skaı͡a in this area, he nevertheless argues that the full scope of Britten’s engagement with Russian culture has escaped scholarly attention until now. To redress this imbalance, Pyke explores not only Britten’s relationships to Shostakovich, Rostropovich, and Vishnevskaı͡a, but also to Tchaikovsky, Sergey Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky as well as Britten’s initial contacts with Russian music as a young man, the trips Britten and Pears made to Russia between 1963 and 1971, the impact of Russian performance practice, and the reception of Britten’s music within the political context of the Soviet Union. The book is organized largely by composer relationships, with chapters for Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Two chapters delve into Britten’s relationship with Shostakovich, while discussions of Britten’s Russian trips and performance practice considerations each receive their own chapters.
The title of the first chapter, “Earliest and Lifelong Russophilia,” illustrates Pyke’s main point: Britten’s engagement with Russian culture began in his boyhood and remained consistent throughout his life, though with varying focus at different times. Pyke describes Britten’s adolescent experiences of Russian opera and ballet as an “afterglow” (p. 6) of British enthusiasm for nineteenth-century Russian culture before World War I. In the 1930s, as the British musical establishment embraced the classicizing tendencies of Jean Sibelius, Pyke reads Britten’s enthusiasm for Russian music, particularly Tchaikovsky, as a “conscious reaction” and “a reassertion” of the pre-World War I “musical Russophilia which cast a lingering shadow over [Britten’s] childhood and adolescence” (p. 7). Britten thus saw Russian music as an exotic “Other,” attractive but distant enough to remain a “non-threatening” influence (p. 7). Pyke reiterates this idea throughout the course of his argument.
Both chapters 2 and 7 consider Britten’s friendship with Shostakovich. Pyke divides his discussion into two halves demarcated by Britten’s first trip to Russia; chapter 2 [End Page 246] covers 1934–1963, and chapter 7 covers 1963–1976. In the context of Britten’s lifelong interest in Russia, chapter 2 stands out. To Pyke, Britten’s early interest in Shostakovich was based on selective musical appeal reinforced by the extra-musical factor of Shostakovich’s perceived “Russianness” (p. 83). Shostakovich’s influence through works such as Ledi Makbet Mt͡senskogo uezda (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) therefore affirmed preexisting tendencies in Britten’s musical language—innovative scoring for percussion and a taste for satire, for example—rather than creating new tendencies. In contrast to Britten’s acceptance of the music of Tchaikovsky, Pyke notes that Britten’s view of Shostakovich in the 1930s was “complex and fluid” (p. 82...