For Peter and Osian, and Music Fit for Queen Mother


As the end of my Juilliard career draws near, I have been thinking about where my academic interests lie.  It’s actually rather simple.  I like telling stories.  And tonight’s story is about two musicians, the tenor Peter Pears and the harpist Osian Ellis, who inspired the last works of a dying composer, Benjamin Britten.

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In recognition of Britten’s centennial this year, a variety of concerts and programs worldwide have celebrated the composer’s life and works.  The homepage of the website dedicated to this celebration, Britten100, describes his music as “music for everyone.”  For Britten is certainly one of the most recognized composers of the twentieth century.  Perhaps, there is some sort of appeal, something about his music that touches upon the depths of human emotion.

In 1964, the Aspen Institute selected Britten as one of its first recipients for the Aspen Award.  At the inaugural ceremony, he discussed his compositional process:

"I certainly write music for human beings – directly and deliberately.  I consider their voices, the range, the power, the subtlety, and the color potentialities of them.  I consider the instruments they play – their most expressive and suitable individual sonorities … I also take note of the human circumstances of music, of its environment and conventions … almost every piece I have ever written has been composed with a certain occasion in mind, and usually for definite performers, and certainly always human ones."

Britten continued:

"Music does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed, and performance imposes conditions.  It is the easiest thing in the world to write a piece virtually or totally impossible to perform – but oddly enough that is not what I prefer to do; I prefer to study the conditions of performance and shape my music to them."

By the end of the summer of 1972, Britten began to exhibit symptoms of a serious health condition.  In order to concentrate on completing work on his last opera, Death in Venice, all of his performance engagements were canceled.  And medical tests in April of 1973, confirmed that he did in fact require a heart operation.  On May 7, he underwent surgery for a heart valve replacement. 

While the procedure was successful, he suffered a small stroke, leaving him with impaired movement on his right side.  No longer able to continue his career as a conductor and pianist, Britten directed his energy into composition.  In an interview for The Times, in December of 1974, he spoke about how composing helped him get through this difficult period:

"For a time after the operation, I couldn’t compose because I had no confidence in my powers of selection.  I was worried too about my ideas.  Then I suddenly got my confidence back and composing has become a marvelous therapy…I have the feeling of being of some use once more."

The stories behind the works on tonight’s program, Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus and A Birthday Hansel, reflect how, over the years, Britten had come to depend on the virtuosity and creativity of his close-knit circle of colleagues in order to envision and create his own works.

One of those musicians, the tenor Peter Pears, was the most influential among Britten’s coterie of instrumentalists and singers.  In the early thirties, Pears began his vocal career as a tenor with the BBC Singers, as well as the vocal sextet, called the New English Singers, whose repertoire focused on Elizabethan madrigals and English folk songs.  During this period, Pears shared an apartment with his childhood friend, Peter Burra.  As a freelance writer, Burra attended the International Society for Contemporary Music in the spring of 1936.  There, he met young English composers, including, Benjamin Britten.  And it was through Burra, that Pears and Britten first met. While the young men occasionally got together in the months following the festival, Pears and Britten more-or-less continued along in their separate ways.

The two aspiring musicians were brought closer together when their mutual friend, Burra, was killed suddenly in a plane accident in April of 1937.  Years later, Pears described how, “it was Peter’s death at Bucklebury which brought Ben into my life.  How can I ever be thankful enough for this happening?” It was “a gift from God, something that I don’t deserve and didn’t deserve.”

Through the spring and summer months of 1937, Pears and Britten maintained a close friendship, writing letters to one other on occasion.  Something about the handsome tenor must have piqued the composer’s interests, for Britten soon composed his first song for Pears. 

The piece, a setting of Emily Brontë’s “A thousand, thousand gleaming fires” was performed on a BBC broadcast, September 29, 1937.  Pears must have impressed Britten, for he gave him a glowing review: “He is a good singer and a first rate musician.”  In an interview towards the end of his life, Britten described how he was captivated by the unique timbre of the tenor’s voice:  “But more fundamentally, I was attracted, even in the early days by his voice, which seemed to me to emanate from a personality, and not, like many other voices, to be a manufactured affair, super-imposed.”

In the spring of 1939, Pears and Britten journeyed together across the Atlantic, first stopping in Canada, and then heading south into Michigan.  The beginning of the trip was a turning point for their relationship, which would go from one that was pleasantly platonic, to one that was hopelessly romantic. Months later, when Britten returned to Michigan, Pears wrote to him from New York:  “I shall never forget a certain night in Grand Rapids.  Ich liebe dich … I’m terribly in love with you.”

The nearly three years that Pears and Britten had spent together in the United States were fruitful for them both.  Pears’s voice was increasingly fueling Britten’s creativity, while Britten’s musicianship and compositions were giving the tenor the musical direction that he had been searching for.  By April of 1940, Britten began working on his first song cycle for Pears, titled, The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo.  The third song in the set reads as follows:  “My will is in your will alone, My thoughts are born within your heart, my words are on your breath.”  In this cycle that was dedicated to Pears, the last line, “my words are on your breath,” would have taken on a special significance for Pears, as a singer. 

The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo were the first of several cycles that were specifically written for him.  Pears would also inspire many of Britten’s leading operatic roles, from the title character in Peter Grimes, to his last, as Aschenbach in Death in Venice.  The two also toured together extensively, performing in addition to Britten’s latest vocal works, the lieder of Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.

The other musician profiled in tonight’s story is the Welsh harpist, Osian Ellis.  He was born on February 8, 1928, and during his childhood years, he studied piano and organ, in addition to the harp.  Upon graduation from the Royal Academy of Music, Ellis quickly immersed himself in the bustling London music scene as a freelance harpist for the city’s orchestras and studio ensembles.  In 1957, he received a grant from the Art Council of Great Britain, allowing him to give a concert tour throughout the country. 

He soon became a member of the Sinfonia of London, while enjoying opportunities to work alongside such composers as Malcolm Arnold, Nino Rota, and Sir Arthur Bliss.  He also collaborated with Charlie Chaplin, who at the time, was working on new scores for his classic films.  As a versatile harpist, Ellis quickly gained notoriety for his infallible technique, musical conviction, and dynamic, programmatic performances.

On January 4, 1959, Britten attended a performance of his work for treble voices and harp, titled A Ceremony of Carols.  The concert was held at Westminster Cathedral, and Britten wrote to its conductor, George Malcolm, the following day: “the whole choir sang with a brilliance and authority which was staggering – owing to you, my dear, I know, and I do sincerely send my congratulations.  I liked and admired Osian Ellis greatly.” 

This was the first meeting between Britten and Ellis, whose playing impressed Britten such that the composer invited the harpist to play in the upcoming premiere of his latest opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  After several rehearsals in the late spring of 1960 at Britten’s festival grounds in Aldeburgh, however, the second harpist suddenly dropped out.  Ellis then daringly offered to combine the two parts as one.  Years later, he recalled the nerve-wracking experience:  “The ink was still wet as I climbed into the pit for the dress rehearsal that evening.  That was my ‘baptism of fire’ at the Aldeburgh Festival, and we performed with one harp for the whole of that season.”  Ellis’s debut at Aldeburgh marked the beginning of a close working relationship between Britten and his Welsh harpist.

In 1963, Britten began working on the first of his three Church Parables, Curlew River.  Scored for a small ensemble, he promised to include a harp part only if Ellis would play.  In 1964, Curlew River was premiered, with Ellis as the harpist.  While Britten was preparing the score for his second church parable, The Burning Fiery Furnace, he first decided to consult with his resident harpist.  On February 11, 1966, he wrote to Ellis:  “I hope you’ll like what I’ve done for you – very different from Curlew River though!”  In this same letter, the composer asked Ellis to look over the new part and to let him know if there were any unsuitable passages.  Britten’s correspondence with Ellis reveals not only how Britten had come to highly respect his playing, but also how closely he worked with him, in order to understand to the intricacies of the harp, from its chromatic limitations to its range of dramatic expression.

Despite the substantial harp parts in the church parables, Ellis really wanted a solo piece from Great Britian’s most famous living composer. In as early as April of 1964, the harpist first approached him about such a work, first suggesting an arrangement of selections from Curlew River.  Ellis also proposed:  “I did look through the piano score of “The Prince of the Pagodas” recently but could not find anything that fitted the harp alone really well.”  The opportunity for a solo piece came in 1968, when Ellis was selected as the “Chosen Artist” for the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival.  While the harpist was to choose the repertoire for his recital, Britten hinted to Ellis:  “You can, of course, commission a new work for the harp from any composer whom you care to mention.”

Britten’s Suite for Harp, was completed on March 18, 1969, and premiered by Ellis on June 24.  A work in five movements, the last is a set of variations on the Welsh hymn, St. Denio, in homage to Ellis’s heritage. 

[15 MIN]  

A couple of years later, at the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten’s Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi was premiered. Set to text by T.S. Eliot, the piece is scored for counter-tenor, tenor, baritone, and piano.  Pears sang the tenor part, with Britten seated at the piano.  Aside from arrangements of Purcell and Bach, and his third cello suite, Britten’s only other major work between 1971 and 1973 was what would be his last opera, Death in Venice.  He was showing signs of a serious illness, and for some time, had been complaining of pain in his left arm. 

Britten and Pears had been performing together for over thirty years, but by 1972, Britten knew he was sick, and it was time for Pears to look for another accompanist.  Britten suggested the Aldeburgh harpist-in-residence, Osian Ellis.  While the tenor had certainly come to know Ellis’s playing, Pears’s decision to work with a harpist, may have been motivated by another factor.  Pears and Britten were not only in a professional relationship – they were also romantic partners.  And perhaps the tenor felt that Britten would have been offended if he had chosen to work with another pianist. 

In 1972, Pears and Ellis established themselves as a performing duo, playing tours together around Europe.  A program from a concert they gave in Copenhagen, reflects a diverse repertoire that nonetheless featured the works of the composer they were most closely-associated with.  Britten, in his convalescence, then set about creating a new body of work for the Pears and Ellis collaboration.  By July of 1974, he completed his first new composition since his operation.  This was his Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, for tenor and harp.

There are several possible reasons for why Britten returned to this particular genre. The previous four canticles had all been written for performance by Pears and Britten.  And perhaps, the premiere of Canticle IV, among Britten’s last appearances as a pianist, was lingering on his mind.  In addition, the fourth canticle is based on text by T.S. Eliot, the poet whose words Britten would also set in the Death of Saint Narcissus.  And yet, I am also tempted to suggest that, this poem’s central theme of self-reflection would have intrigued the composer who now faced the realization that his illness permanently prevented him from many of the activities that had defined so much of his career.

Composed in memory of his friend and librettist William Plomer, who had passed away in September of 1973, Canticle V powerfully conveys, what the Britten scholar Peter Evans described, “a mood of spiritual elevation intense enough to demand realization in an ambitious musical structure.”  The poem begins:

Come under the shadow of this gray rock –

Come in under the shadow of this gray rock, and I will show you something different from either

Your shadow sprawling over the sand at daybreak, or

Your shadow leaping behind the fire against the red rock:

I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs

And the gray shadow on his lips.

Eliot immediately invites the reader to witness an increasingly-grotesque serious of events.  Based on the story of Narcissus, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Eliot’s poem addresses the anti-Romantic need to restrain the mythological figure’s growing sense of self-awareness.  He warns against self-knowledge and vanity, for such can lead to one’s eventual demise.  Narcissus is then transformed, in a serious of tableaus, each depicted with a sense of lacerating uneasiness.  From the beginning of the piece, Britten draws the listener into his harmonic world of juxtaposed tonalities.  Caught in a tangled array of episodes, the metamorphosis of Narcissus ultimately leads to his self-annihilation.  He becomes a martyr, a dancer before God.  Britten then releases us from the uncomfortable shifting of dueling, triadic harmonies at this moment, with rapid C major arpeggios in the harp.

Britten’s setting of The Death of Saint Narcissus is poignant and eloquent.  With the slippery harmonic oscillation underneath a tightly-woven, fluid vocal line, Canticle V explores an expansive range of musical expression.

[20 MIN]

Britten’s other work for the Pears-Ellis duo, is of a markedly less-serious character.  In 1975, the Queen asked Britten to write a set of songs to celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of her mother.  In homage to the Queen Mother’s heritage, Britten selected seven poems by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns.  The decision to set his poems may have also been inspired in part, by the reading of his lyrics to Britten by his nurse, Rita Thomson, during his recovery.  On August 4, 1975, Britten completed A Birthday Hansel, and on January 11, 1976, Pears and Ellis premiered the cycle in Germany.  Several days later, the tenor-harp duo gave a private performance of the piece for the Queen Mother, her daughters, Britten, and Ms. Thomson. The collection of songs charmed the Queen Mother, who wrote to Britten upon receipt of the manuscript in August of 1975:

"I don’t think that I have ever had a more wonderful surprise in my life than the moment when I set eyes on your Birthday Hansel.  I am absolutely thrilled and delighted by this glorious birthday gift, and I do want to thank you with all my heart for your kindness in composing this very special and exciting music."

While as perhaps Britten’s most important critic, the Queen Mother, gave her stamp of approval, other reviewers reacted to the piece less favorably.  The first public performance in the United Kingdom took place in March of 1976.  In his review of the concert, Malcolm Boyd offered an ambivalent critique:

"Though a slight work in the context of Britten’s music as a whole, this continuous cycle shows no decline in the composer’s gift for deft and pointed word setting, with just a hint of a folk tune here, of a Scottish reel there."

Months after the July 1976 recording of A Birthday Hansel (which also included Britten’s Suite for Harp), Patricia Howard was less apologetic in her review:

"The Birthday Hansel is a less work in every sense.  The harp, perhaps deliberately, dominates:  the little preludes express the heart of the poems.  The vocal line seems only intermittently to enhance, - and occasionally … imposes an inappropriate degree of sophistication on such open-air and open-hearted verses."

When William and I began working on A Birthday Hansel, one of the first things I said to him was, “I don’t want you to have the impression that there are some songs that I really don’t like, but there are some that are definitely my favorites.”  As it turned out, William brought (by accident), four of the songs that had been arranged for voice and piano by Colin Matthews.

These were published separately as Four Burns Songs by Faber Music in 1975, and they include Afton Water, Wee Willie, The Winter, and My Hoggie.  Given that these arrangements were published shortly after Britten had completed A Birthday Hansel, suggests that he recognized the accessibility of these particular songs that could now be enjoyed by both harpists and pianists. In addition, while the songs in A Birthday Hansel are played without pause, linked by transitions in the harp, the Four Burns Songs are distinct numbers, thus giving musicians the option to perform select songs without having the program the entire set.

While the program lists the original seven songs in A Birthday Hansel¸ William and I have decided to perform the four included in the piano/vocal arrangement. We will however, present them in their original order.

The first, “Wee Willie,” is a variation that Burns had set to an old nursery-song, “Wee Totum Fogg.”  Burns’s “Wee Willie” is dressed almost as a fairy-like figure, with the willow, lily-flower, and feathers as adornments.  While Britten’s setting bears no resemblance to the original tune, the bustling harp accompaniment and patter-singing together capture the childlike innocence of this light-hearted song.  The mood abruptly changes as the next song, “My Hoggie” begins.  In the stormy key of C minor, Britten takes us through the tumultuous evening with low, rumbling sixteenth-notes in the bass, as the singer nervously frets about his poor, pet lamb.  The writing for the harp is particularly evocative in this song.  Britten exploits the full range of the instrument, and the sudden changes in texture guide our attention to the rapid sequence of events.

From the “scroggie Hillsides” and the “foggie mornings,” we go into the next song, “Afton Water.”  This was one of Burns’s most popular lyrics, and in a letter from the poet to a Mrs. Dunlop, dated February 5, 1789, the poet describes the River Afton as having “some charming, wild, romantic scenery on its banks.  I have a particular pleasure in those little pieces of poetry such as our Scottish songs, etc., where the names and landscape- features of rivers, lakes, or woodlands, that are known are introduced.  I attempted a compliment of that kind to Afton.”

The opening E major arpeggios establish a sense of serene stasis from which the vocal line freely rises and falls.  The texture is beautifully hypnotic.  This is music for a lullaby, and with aimless murmurings in the harp’s concluding gestures, Britten extends the dream for just a moment longer.

The Winter It is Past, and the summer comes at last

And the small birds sing on every tree;

The hearts of these are glad, but mine is very sad,

For my love is parted from me.

Although the chill of winter is a distant memory, the speaker remains wrought with sorrow, over the loss of his true love.  The slowly descending bass, and the stringent cross-relations between the voice and the harp, depict the ballad’s theme of unrequited love.

We will now perform selections from A Birthday Hansel, beginning with “Wee Willie” and concluding with “The Winter.”

Peter Pears and Osian Ellis significantly influenced Britten’s writing for tenor and for harp, and we owe to their late partnership, Britten’s works for the unique medium.  While Ellis certainly inspired Britten’s later compositions for the harp, looking at the harp parts in his earlier works, such as A Ceremony of Carols and those in his earlier operas, we have a composer who wrote for the instrument brilliantly and idiomatically.  His fascination with the harp is something that has always intrigued me, and I would like to propose several possible explanations for Britten’s particular interest in writing for the instrument.

At the turn of the century, the revival of the modern, double action pedal harp encouraged composers to write substantial parts for this new instrument, and during the first part of the century we find a significant amount of new solo works, chamber music, and orchestral parts for the harp.

In addition, perhaps Britten was influenced by the well-established folk harp tradition across the British Isles.  One other hypothesis is that the harp’s chromatic limitations resonated with Britten’s own harmonic language that often remains bound by a tonal framework.  In her essay on Britten’s Church Parables, Robin Holloway expanded upon this last point:

"No one since its emancipation from mere arpeggios and glissandi has understood the genius of this instrument as Britten, who makes its technical character so influence his compositional thought that the music grows directly out of what the instrument can and cannot do.  Total chromaticism is beyond its diatonic structure; the possibility of these will make those notes unplayable; which necessitates ingenious choice in planning every harmonic change.  Such narrow limits exactly suit an ear exceptionally to every inflection of every note, and a usage latent in his earlier harp-writing […] increasingly permeates his later music whether or not the harp is literally present."

Before I open up for questions and comments, I would like to thank you for coming this evening.  To my family and friends, thank you for your support over these last five years.  To my teacher, Nancy Allen, for your guidance, inspiration, and uncanny ability to make me work as hard as I can.  Lastly, to William.  Thank you for exploring these challenging works with me.  While I’ve spent many hours cooped up in one library or another, it has been a pleasure collaborating with such an insightful musician.  Britten and his works seem to bring musicians together, ones who otherwise may not have crossed paths.  So again, thank you.

© 2018 Dr. Ashley Jackson