DESKTOP
TABLET (max. 1024px)
MOBILE (max. 640px)
Return to Top
Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Benjamin Britten at 100, Part II: Dance a fine window into this composer's eclecticism

By John Terauds on February 24, 2013

Kenneth Macmillan's staging of Benjamin Britten's ballet the Prince of the Pagodas for the Royal Ballet.
Kenneth MacMillan’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s ballet The Prince of the Pagodas for the Royal Ballet.

We think of Benjamin Britten as an opera composer, but he wrote for ballet as well, and the rhythmic vitality of much of his instrumental music continues to inspire choreographers.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

According to the excellent background information on Benjamin Britten and his music published by the Britten-Pears Foundation, the would-be composer produced his first ballet score, Plymouth Town, at age 17.

It is described by the Foundation as, “A dockside morality tale slightly indebted to Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.

Throughout his life, Britten was not shy about adapting music from other times and places. This is an hourable, centuries-old English tradition that would have earned scorn from a Mid-Century Modern North American or German composition professor.

Dance music is a great window into this eclecticism. I also think this is a fine way to begin appreciating why Britten’s creations resonate so well a century after his birth — at a time when the rest of culture is open to borrowing and adapting across cultures in musical mashups and kitchen fusions.

In 1938, Britten took some music he had appropriated for a film score from Gioachino Rossini and turned it into the ballet score Soirées musicales. It was so well received that he then wrote a companion, Matinées musicales. (Publisher Boosey & Hawkes says Balanchine turned both suites into a new ballet, but it doesn’t show up on the official George Balanchine Trust list.)

Here is conductor Desar Sulejmani at a concert in Düsseldorf two years ago, taking us through the first two-thirds of Matinées musicales:

At the experimental end of Britten’s aesthetic is his ballet score The Prince of the Pagodas, initially choregraphed by John Cranko.

In Part I of this series, we learned of Britten’s Canadian connections, made during the nearly four years he spent away from England before and during the outbreak of World War II.

Britten’s interest in the music of Bali was sparked by Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who had just returned from several years of learning and absorbing the musical traditions of gamelan.

Here are Britten and McPhee recorded in 1941 playing three Balinese pieces (Pemoengkah, Gambangan and Taboeh teloe) on two pianos:

Britten and partner Peter Pears went on an extended world recital tour for five months in 1955 and 1956. The couple took a two-week break in Bali, followed by nearly two weeks in Japan.

The result of this personal contact with Balinese music was The Prince of the Pagodas, premiered by the Royal Ballet in 1957.

This sensibility found its way into Britten’s other music during the second half of his working life.

Here are the opening scenes from Prince of the Pagodas from a 1990 revival of Kenneth MacMillan‘s 1989 production for the Royal Ballet (dancer Jonathan Cope is amazing the Prince, who enters in the third video clip), followed by an an extended audio clip of the enchanting “Bali Rice Terraces” beautifully performed by the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen:

Britten’s most significant legacy comes from his operas. My favourite is Gloriana, an initially not-so-successful effort for the the celebrations around Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne.

It contains a masque for Elizabeth I where the festive music is provided by the chorus as well as the orchestra. Britten assembled the six Choral Dances into a freestanding piece which MacMillan choreographed in 1977.

Here, for a bit more Toronto content, are some of the Choral Dances, as sung by the Hart House Chorus in 2002:

There is also quite a bit of music Britten wrote for concert purposes that continues to find its way onto sprung floors.

One prime example is Diversions, a piano concerto-like collection of theme and variations written for Paul Wittgenstein (the same left-handed pianist who commissioned Maurice Ravel’s now-famous concerto) in 1941.

The music practically screams for choreography, and Christopher Wheeldon obliged with Thirteen Diversions for American Ballet Theatre in 2011.

This is a fantastic recording of the music, I wish I knew by whom:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300
comments powered by Disqus

Ludwig Van Toronto

RECORD KEEPING | A Tale Of Two Composer Prodigies

By Paul E. Robinson on September 12, 2017

This CD is a tale of two cities' young composer prodigies: George Gershwin to our south, and Quebec's André Mathieu.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300

IN MEMORIAM | Irene Salemka McGillivray (1931-2017)

By Jennifer Liu on August 28, 2017

A leading Canadian soprano on European opera stages in the 1950s and 60s, Irene Salemka McGillivray passed away Sunday in her Ontario home.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article

LISZT | Five Stratospheric High Notes To Finish Off Your Weekend

By Sara Schabas on September 10, 2017

The weekend isn't over until you hear these sky-high finishers! They'll be sure to end your week on a high note.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_low_590x300
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700

We have detected that you are using an adblocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we earn by the advertisements is used to manage this website. Please whitelist our website in your adblocking plugin.