Britten in Europe

12-Star Culture, European Commission, October 2013

Benjamin Britten, born one hundred years ago and heralded as a quintessentially English composer, in fact drew inspiration from as far afield as Bali and its traditional gamelan music for his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, to Russia for his setting of Pushkin poems, The Poet's Echo, and to North America for the rich seam of folklore which he mined in Paul Bunyan. Closer to home, his sensibilities were deeply and eclectically European and this is perhaps reflected in the popularity of his music throughout Europe. In this centenary year, in the months of July and August alone, there are performances of his Violin Concerto in Dortmund, Germany; The Little Sweep in Toulouse, France; Death in Venice in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; A Midsummer Night's Dream in Zurich, Switzerland and Läkkö Slot in Sweden; his Piano Concerto in Sintra, Portugal; Our Hunting Fathers in Bregenz, Austria; The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra at Kromeriz Castle, Czech Republic; Serenade in Sopot, Poland and Peter Grimes in Stresa, Italy.

In 1930, not yet 17, Britten went to study at the Royal College of Music and, although he did not particularly enjoy his time there, he took full advantage of all the opportunities London could offer by way of concerts, opera and theatre. A keen film-goer, he was much struck by Emil und die Detektive, which he described, rather disarmingly, in his diary as 'the most perfect and satisfying film I have ever seen or ever hope to see'. He bought a copy of Erich Kästner's book and attempted to read it, in German. This perhaps foreshadows the many works by Britten featuring a young boy, from the St Nicholas Cantata and Peter Grimes to The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice. He also indulged a short-lived passion for the music of Brahms, although he might well have denied this in later life, when he was capable of making other people feel as if they had committed a hideous social solecism if they expressed a liking for his music. Strong musical influences at that time include Mahler and Shostakovich and he planned to study with Alban Berg in Vienna but eventually gave up that idea.

Britten's reading was fairly wide-ranging and became more so when he met the poet WH Auden, whose own words were set to music by Britten – Paul Bunyan, Hymn to St Cecilia, Cabaret Songs – and who introduced him to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, and in particular to Les Illuminations, which Britten set to music in 1939. Composing for a language other than English was a challenge that Britten was to rise to again. With the tenor Peter Pears, he lived in America for three years of the Second World War; they returned in 1942 to register as conscientious objectors. During that time he wrote the first work that was specifically for Pears to sing, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. The Italian language suited Pears' declamatory, clear, exceptionally communicative voice extremely well, although performing the songs at the Wigmore Hall, with Britten at the piano, was an ordeal for them both. Britten suffered badly from stage fright and said that 'I was dreadfully nervous . . . it was rather like parading naked in public.' They were on stage together for the first time in Britain since their return from America and they felt exposed, both as performers and as pacifists and, although this could not be acknowledged or expressed overtly, as life partners. The Sonnets were a great success and they went on to perform them in recitals all over Britain, under the auspices of the recently established Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. Britten always enjoyed taking music to non-specialist audiences and wrote to a friend: 'We go all over the place, under the strangest conditions - playing on awful old pianos - singing easy, but always good, programmes - and really have the greatest successes with the simplest programmes. It does get music really to the people, finds out what they want and puts the emphasis on the music, and not the personality of the artist or their previous fame. One starts completely from scratch as it were, since more often than not they haven't heard of Schubert, much less Britten and Pears!'

Britten often accompanied Pears in Schubert Lieder, Winterreise being a notable favourite, so it was probably inevitable that the German language would appeal to him to set to music, but he only did so once, in the Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente of 1958.

Beyond composing for languages other than English, Britten was to find inspiration in texts for his operas from a number of European sources. André Obey's play Le viol de Lucrèce (1931) was used by the poet and playwright Ronald Duncan as the basis for his libretto for The Rape of Lucretia; Albert Herring, that distillation of essential small-town Englishness, is in fact drawn from a story by Guy de Maupassant, Le Rosier de Madame Husson; and Britten's final opera, Death in Venice, takes Thomas Mann's novella as its source, that troubling exploration of all the themes that so preoccupied the composer: reflections of youth and innocence, the power of beauty to inspire love, the inevitability of old age and death.

While still at college, Britten had been awarded an Octavia Travelling Scholarship, and that heralded a lifelong love of European travel. In 1934, he and his mother put the funds to good use and set off on a tour of Switzerland, Austria and Germany. His diary entries record that 'I couldn't make myself thrilled' about a performance of Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci, but in Basel he heard Die Fledermaus - never have I heard an orchestra play like that … the singers too … inspired from the beginning to the end', while in Vienna he became thoroughly Wagner-fied: 'I'm coming back, soon and often, Meistersinger, Siegfried last week and Götterdämmerung tonight!!!!'.

Britten did not always have comfortable relationships with opera house managements and his solution to that was to found his own company, the English Opera Group. This began in 1945 as a collaboration between Britten and Pears, the singer Joan Cross, painter and designer John Piper and producer Eric Crozier. Their aim was to present small-scale productions of operas by Britten and other composers, and to take them on tour around Britain and mainland Europe. In 1947 they went on the road with The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, achieving considerable popular success but unfortunately, while en route from the Netherlands Festival to the Lucerne Festival, realising that they were going to end up out of pocket for the third year running and would have to trim their travel schedule considerably. It was as a direct result of this realisation that Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival, in his home county of Suffolk.

It was certainly not the end of his European travels or the end of his music's reach beyond British shores. The Turn of the Screw received its premiere in 1954 at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice; he wrote his Alpine Suite for recorder trio while on a skiing holiday in Zermatt; concert tours with Peter Pears took them from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, from Salzburg to Florence.

Triumphantly, as a lasting gesture of faith in the potential of European unity to rise above devastating conflict, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was written to be first performed by Galina Vishnevskaya, a Russian; Peter Pears, an Englishman; and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a German.