Friday, December 20, 2013
Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and Oxford
On December 4, 1976, as the nights drew in after that memorable summer, E, a much-loved mentor, came to visit me in the room I was occupying in my last undergraduate year at university. She wanted to make sure I was settled, I think, in this important final year. Once we'd drunk the ritual tea and exchanged the expected gossip, the conversation turned to music, which had been at the centre of much of E's life. I wanted to play her a few tracks from a recording I'd just bought, of Britten's Les illuminations, and once E had got over the shock that the singer was a soprano and not the expected Peter Pears, we sat back and enjoyed the whole disc. It felt like a true connection between listeners, performers, and composer. As E pointed out, the work had been premiered by a female singer, after all, even if Pears had made the work his own in the subsequent decades. Further reflections followed. We recalled a performance of Les illuminations that we'd both attended in which the singer's pronunciation of Rimbaud's French text undermined the final bars – his parting 'Assez eu' sounded impure and guttural, more like 'assez eugh'. If we laughed about that, over our second cup of tea, I was also told that Britten was very ill now and it was likely that the stream of music that had been steadily flowing for so long would be stayed. Then E went home, and I turned back to whatever it was I was supposed to be reading.
And we would no doubt have forgotten our quiet listening to Britten's song cycle had it not been for the fact that a few days later we opened our respective newspapers and learned that Britten had died that very day. A coincidence of course, but coincidences are patterns, and they stick in the memory, and haunt us, rather like the patterns of music. The patterns mean that I remember that afternoon, that I have a clearer image in my mind than I would otherwise have of the rather dingy North Oxford room I was living in then, and that I recall a shared experience with someone who meant lot to me.
As far as the steady flow of music went, we learned that the tide was not quite out. The composer's third string quartet was premiered at Aldeburgh about two weeks after Britten's death. Its distinctive musical textures – often described as 'spare' because frequently only one or two instruments are playing at once – may in part be due to the composer's partly paralysed right hand. But however they got there, the sounds he produces are a distillation of his late style, deeply absorbing, and a profound example of creativity triumphant in the face of illness and death. The long last movement, entitled 'La serenissima', has been seen as death-defying. Taking a cue from its title I also see in its glittering sounds a reflection of Turner's late Venetian paintings, as if the composer, his inspiration illuminated one final time, is looking towards the light.
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'Assez vu….assez eu….assez connu….' Estonian soprano Aile Asszonyi in 'Départ', the final movement of Britten's Les illuminations.