Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Habit of Art: Benjamin Britten and Noye's Fludde

I am being stalked by Benjamin Britten. Up until last year, I knew the name and a little about the composer's work but that was the sum of my knowledge. Then, I read The Rest is Noise: listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. The crudest description of this remarkable book would be to say that it is an introduction to the consonance and dissonance of contemporary classical music. But it is also concerned with politics and philosophy; history and art. Ross has a chapter on Britten where he describes how the Norfolk landscape combined with Britten's buttoned-up parochialism and homosexuality to find an original register in his work:
Britten lived for most of his life in the Aldeburgh area, and he once stated that all his music came from there. "I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships," he said in a speech in Aspen, Colordado, in 1964. "I want my music to be of use to people, to please them...I do not write for posterity." Britten designed many of his pieces for performance in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall and in churches around the area...In his Aspen speech Britten provocatively compared the regimentation of culture in totaltarian states to the self imposed regimentation of the avant-garde in democratic countries. Any ideological organization of music, he said, distorts a composer's natural voice, his "gift and personality."

In January I went to see Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, at the National Theatre. The play centres around the imaginary meeting between the poet, W.H. Auden and Britten. In a programme note, Bennett writes:
"The title comes from Flannery O'Connor. At least I thought I did. She wrote "Scientists have the habit of science. I have the habit of art." However John Bird, whose reading is much wider (and more rigorous) than mine, tells me that he came across it in the correspondence between Stravinsky and Jacques Maritain in the twenties."

In the play, Britten says to Auden:
I've never wanted to shock. I just want an audience to think that this is music they've heard before and that it's a kind of coming home - even when they're hearing it for the first time. I want it to seem inevitable...When I was boy - because at twenty-three I was still a boy - I was baffled by the torrent of words that used to pour out of you and I clung to my pathetic staves and bar lines lest I drown in your wake. These magnificent words - I used to think my paltry music just an afterthought, a servant to the words. But it's not. Music melts words...your words and Myfanwy's too. It's the music that matters, even in Gilbert and Sullivan. Music wins.

In a brief scene, Britten gets into conversation with a male prostitute called Stuart who has come to Auden's rooms in the Brewhouse, Christ Church, Oxford:
Britten plays a chord.
Stuart: I've never seen an opera.
Britten: That's good. I wrote an opera for boys like you who'd never seen one.
Stuart: Yeah?
Britten: It was quite jolly. Some of them couldn't play or sing but they did the music with drums and teacups.
Stuart: Teacups?
Britten: Yes. And the audience sang too.
Stuart: Did you have to pay them?
Britten: The audience? No. No. They did it for...well, for love, I suppose.

The opera that Britten alludes to in this extract is Noye's Fludde and it was this opera that was performed in Brentwood Cathedral last week....and, yes, there were teacups. In 1957, after hearing a concert performed by several hundred East Suffolk children in Aldeburgh Church, Britten decided to write a work for children to sing and play and act in a "a big building...preferably a church - but not a theatre." He chose to base his church opera on a Chester Miracle play: the story of Noah, the ark and the animals to be played by children. Rather than have an audience for his opera, Britten wanted a congregation who would actively participate in the drama by singing three hymns.

Great music has a gravitational pull, it draws individuals together and makes them a creative community. This was evident as the production of Noye's Fludde started to take shape in Brentwood Cathedral. The artistic process gave people a common goal, a new way of encountering community. The opera offered people a lyrical syntax with which to communicate their human experience with a new intensity; an original pitch with which (for a transitory moment) to live their lives. Britten's music and his theatrical enterprise found an imaginative way of using the different talents and levels of expertise of all those involved; assigning to each person a role perfectly fitted to their gifts and without which the project would be diminished. Some roles, such as that of the director, were more prominent than others, but all (from those who made the children's costumes to those who sold tickets) were essential. This was more than a democratising exercise but revealed the succouring ways that men and women, young and old can work together. Britten himself conceived Noye's Fludde as a liturgical act, both in terms of content and execution; an artistic sign pointing to the immense solitude of transcendence, a kind of coming home.

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Arvo Part

OP-ATE | MySpace Video

For photos of Brentwood Cathedral's production of Noye's Fludde go to http://cathedral-brentwood.org/fludde/index.html

The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett at the Royal National Theatre, Southbank, London. nationaltheatre.org.uk


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