- Benjamin Britten Studies: Essays on an Inexplicit Art ed. by Vicki P. Stroeher and Justin Vickers
Benjamin Britten Studies: Essays on an Inexplicit Art, volume 12 of the Aldeburgh Studies in Music series edited by Nicholas Clark, is a collection of fifteen writings on the life and works of Benjamin Britten. Editors Vicki P. Stroeher and Justin Vickers explain the volume's title and its invocation of [End Page 111] inexplicitness by drawing on Britten's own words: "But music is an inexplicit art, and what one person thinks is good doesn't necessarily seem music of goodness to someone else" (p. xxv, quoted from Paul Kildea, ed., Britten on Music [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003], 199). They admit that since music can mean different things to different people, it is inadequate as a purely symbolic medium. At the same time, they acknowledge the sense that Britten's music is full of dramatic expression and thus must mean something, if not something explicit. They see multivalent possibilities in the inexplicit nature of music and suggest that the shifting frames of scholarly inquiry in this volume resonate with those possibilities.
This volume is a hefty one, not only in its scholarly depth: at 526 pages it is literally weighty. Readers will be pleased to find fairly exhaustive tables and music examples that go beyond the scope of typical essay collections. For example, Justin Vickers's treatment of the interdependent nature of the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival offers over fifty pages of tables transcribing the programs of the first decade of performances by each organization. Similarly, Christopher Mark's essay on Britten's characteristic use of the augmented-sixth chord focuses on five main examples but also adds an appendix describing other instances in twenty additional works. The thoroughness of these essays will appeal to both academics and students as well as to anyone who wants to roll up their sleeves and dig deeply into a topic. Even with this abundant detail, these well-written essays are engaging, and most would be accessible for even the casual fan of Britten's work (although some discussions, like Mark's, beg for careful study with recordings at hand to enjoy completely).
The introduction to the volume, written by Philip Reed, begins with a review of the robust stream of writings by and about Britten, ranging from biographical and analytical monographs, to periodicals, to published letters and collected essays. The rich survey would be an excellent place for students embarking on a study of Britten's music to begin their inquiry. The second part of Reed's introduction situates this volume within that flow, culminating in a précis of the fifteen essays. Some of the volume's authors are well known in Britten studies (Jenny Doctor, Philip Rupprecht), while others are relative newcomers (Thornton Miller, Colleen Renihan). The topics of the essays range from historical and biographical approaches to those that focus on specific musical characteristics, such as intervals or tempo. The essays are grouped logically around four main themes that enable the writings in each section to resonate with the others to a degree that is not often found in essay collections.
In the first section, two articles on Britten's North American "exile" nicely counterpoint two articles on the years directly after his return to the United Kingdom. Paul Kildea reads Britten's "outsider" experience alongside that of his fellow immigrant, Hans Keller. Stroeher's essay reflects on the missteps in Britten's attempt to express an American idiom in Paul Bunyan. Vickers, as mentioned, details the first decade of the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival and the affinity between them. Doctor's article on Britten's composition of incidental music for BBC and CBS propaganda broadcasts shows how his reputation as a professional composer developed along with evolving sound technology.
In the second section, Louis Niebur starts his piece with a...