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University of Toronto Quarterly 74.2 (2005) 657-670

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Benjamin Britten:

Inventing English Expressionism?

Why Alban Berg? Why, in 1933, did a buttoned-up Royal College student propose Berg as his new teacher? Of course Berg was a quick antidote to the perceived parochial nature of English music - what Bernstein allegedly later derided as 'too much organ voluntary in Lincoln Cathedral, too much Coronation in Wesminster Abbey, too much lark ascending, too much clod-hopping on the fucking village green' (Stradling and Hughes, 174). (I suppose this is more or less what Britten meant when in 1941, in an essay entitled 'England and the Folk-Art Problem,' he said: 'When used as raw material [folksongs] tend to obstruct thinking in the extended musical forms') (Kildea, 33). Yet whatever emotional and intellectual privations he suffered at the Royal College of Music, the fact remains that Frank Bridge continued as his mentor throughout this period, a towering intellectual figure, who had wrestled with his own demons and compositional style in the period in which he taught Britten, who had engaged fully with Europeans trends and ideas, and who now while Britten was at College, gently sniped from the sidelines or intervened directly with his establishment peers when slights - real or imagined - were heaped upon his sensitive, brilliant ex-student.

And it is not as though Britten knew terribly much of Berg's music at this time. His initial exposure to Wozzeck was through a radio broadcast of the first English performance in March 1934. This left Britten bewildered to the point that, in his diary, he for once did not criticize the conductor, Adrian Boult, whom he usually attacked as though shooting fish in a barrel: 'Only the third Act (& bits of the second) were intelligible. The music of this is extraordinarily striking without the action, while that of the first isn't - except for the exciting march & beautiful little lullaby. The hand of Tristan is over alot of the intense emotion, but Berg emerges a definite personality' (Mitchell and Reed, 393). Later, in August of the same year, listening to a gramophone recording of Three Pieces from Wozzeck brought to him by a friend, Britten was more able to articulate his new enthusiasm for the Viennese master. And following this there were other appreciative assessments - the violin concerto ('a sublime work'; 'It is so vital & so intellectually emotional'); the Three Pieces ('which always leave me like a wet rag'); the composer himself ('You [End Page 657] can't be polite after Berg!').1 But not in 1933. Not when Britten was still a buttoned-up Royal College student.

Much, much later, Britten himself admitted that perhaps he had not actually known much of Berg's music in the early 1930s, and that it was Frank Bridge who had suggested he study with him. And then, in an article to mark his fiftieth birthday, he recounted the coda to this sorry exposition, how he went home in the holidays to ask his mother: '"I am going to study with Berg, aren't I?," the answer was a firm, "No dear. ... He's not a good influence."' (Kildea, 252). This, he was sure, was more fear of Berg as sexual bogey-man than of serialism per se - a linking in his mother's mind of Berg's intellectual excesses with sexual ones, an attempt to keep her son out of the moral harm's way she sensed was already looming. Quite what Britten's mother would have done had she known of Berg's vivid heterosexuality is anyone's guess. But this was another world, and suspicions about perceived decadence ran deep, if not particularly profound. Only ten years later Peter Pears and his uncle fell out over the public success of a new gramophone recording of an English folk-song by Pears and Britten - with its tale of the fair maid, wooed by a young weaver who 'hauled her into bed and ... covered up her head, just to keep her from the foggy, foggy dew' - a very protestant disapproval and estrangement given...


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