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The fateful meeting of Benjamin Britten and Colin McPhee recalled by Adam Sherkin in upcoming Toronto concert

By Open Submission on November 10, 2013

Toronto-born composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).
Montreal-born composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).

Toronto composer-pianist Adam Sherkin begins his season of solo recitals next Saturday at the Jane Mallett Theatre with a programme celebrating Benjamin Britten’s time in Canada and the United States, including an encounter with Canadian composer Colin McPhee. Sherkin tells us the story:

By the summer of 1939, Benjamin Britten arrived in New York. After nearly three months in Canada (including a mosquito-ridden June in the Laurentians), Britten journeyed southward, to make his mark on America. He quickly fell for the New World, at many points claiming he would take citizenship and remain in the US for the rest of his life.

The man who became the iconic British composer of the 20th century did not remain in the United States: he sailed home for England in April of 1942.

In the early days of his New York residency he encountered Canadian expat Colin McPhee. Fresh from a seven-year stay on the island of Bali, McPhee was keen to peddle the exotic secrets of Balinese music and found a proselyte in Britten. Their friendship had lasting effects on both, especially on Britten.

It was through Colin McPhee’s connection to Bali and its tantalizing musical and dance culture that Benjamin Britten came to cultivate his own interest and eventual study of Balinese materials, as he later integrated them into many of his works.

Britten’s taste for Bali and the significant role it formed in his creative consciousness is a story unto itself, but in April of 1941 Britten and McPhee entered a recording studio in New York City to put down five of McPhee’s Balinese transcriptions for two pianos.

The result, a six-record set entitled The Music of Bali, released by Schirmer in May 1941, was extraordinary: lucid and tonal, sensual glimmers of an ancient tropical paradise were realized on an instrument synonymous with Westernism, an instrument so common to domestic life in the West. It was the piano, as plain as island rain.


Benjamin Britten came to remember his connection with Colin McPhee as circumspect. In Britten’s letters we learn very little of the relationship between these two composers, even though the British composer performed McPhee’s music at Wigmore Hall in March of 1944.

But based on the fact that Britten and McPhee played one another’s music, concertized a handful of times and recorded together, we can assume that these two held at least a mutual musical admiration and respect for one another. The encounter had a permanent effect on the English composer, integrated keenly into the composer’s own modernist language.

Britten learned from McPhee, but did McPhee learn from Britten? Probably not so much. But, then again, Britten was a reluctant partner, at first.

The Balinese-inspired album the two composers recorded in the early years of the war included five pieces for two pianos, as well as some music for flute and piano. McPhee and Britten had already performed the transcriptions together in public before entering the recording studio, a fact that surely offered McPhee further incentive to choose Britten as his recording partner.

On Britten’s score of McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music, published by G. Schirmer, McPhee’s inscription reads: “To Ben –- hoping he will find something in this music, after all. Colin. April, 1940.”

McPhee must have needed a player with a dual talent for this recording: both a composer and a pianist (like himself). Britten fit the bill.

There is intricate, seductive rhythm in this music whose origins lay far off in a hazy, paradisiacal land. McPhee knew that understanding such music =- in structure, melody, harmony, timbre and rhythm — needed the mind and hands of a composer-pianist.

The pianism displayed on this record is thoughtfully poised and intuitively musical. McPhee’s transcriptions come so very close to the original Balinese, (perhaps as close as is possible on western instruments), that they offer a faithful and wondrous rendition of the gamelan ambience: vivid sound worlds of gleaming counterpoint and rich, bright harmonies.

The lustrous sonorities created by McPhee and Britten’s pianos lure the listener in to a magical sphere, irresistible and sincere. Britten understood the subtleties of gentle melody, of elegant figuration, and of formal design suffused with tropical light.

Here is an excerpt from that recording — Pemoengkah, Gambangan and Taboeh teloe:

More than seventy years after its release, we are fortunate to have such a record; Schirmer’s The Music of Bali exemplifies extraordinary music making in an extraordinary time. Within months, in California, Britten would happen upon a poem by George Crabbe entitled The Borough. It is about an Aldeburgh fisherman named Peter Grimes.

In an infamous flash of prophetic purpose, Britten “realized two things: that [he] must write an opera, and where [he] belonged.” The place where he belonged was apparently England and by April 1942, the composer had left the United States for Britain, braving the perils of a wartime Atlantic crossing.

Back home, Britten established himself as a leader of the operatic genre. A tireless advocate for new music, he founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 and continued to build his reputation as an innovative, modern and commanding musical presence in postwar Britain.

He captured the popular imagination of a nation, all (remarkably) from the vantage point of a little village on the Suffolk coast. Today, at the 100th anniversary of his birth, the world appraises Benjamin Britten as the foremost English composer of the 20th century.

Colin McPhee, who was 13 years older than Britten, might have said, “I knew him when …”

A Canadian expat (and eventual naturalized American), Colin McPhee had no glittering horizon to return home to. Mostly estranged from his family, McPhee had left much of his Canadian community and those opportunities it afforded him behind when he left Toronto for Paris in 1924; he never looked back.

When McPhee divorced his wife in 1938, it left him impoverished and listless. That same year, he was forced to leave his beloved Bali. As part of the Dutch East Indies, Bali was subjected to Nazi witch-hunts, which included throwing foreigners into prison.

A fear campaign devised to undermine the Dutch government was launched, known as “Triple Taboo.” It cracked down on homosexuality, cross-generational male friendships and interracial connections. McPhee fled the island after seven years of residency, never to return.

McPhee lingered in New York City. By the end of World War II, middle-aged, penniless and an alcoholic, the composer’s career was going nowhere. Despite respect for McPhee’s Indonesian expertise and a widening public interest in world music, the composer remained a dim figure, haunted by his own demons and a longing for prewar Bali.

Seeking to reconcile East and West, McPhee dutifully worked on his magnum opus, Music in Bali, acknowledged to this day as a vital contribution to ethnomusicology. But his compositions were few and lacked inspiration.

Towards the end of the 1950s, McPhee penned a handful of orchestral pieces that gained some critical acclaim. Fashioned for western orchestras with western instruments, the pieces embodied enchanting spirit and hedonistic echoes of Bali.
But nothing came close to the high point of 1941, when his collaboration with Britten yielded a rare document of his own pianistic abilities.

McPhee died of cirrhosis of the liver in January, 1964, two months short of his 65th birthday. The only known surviving record of McPhee’s playing is the Schirmer release of 1941.

With the 50th anniversary of Colin McPhee’s death just two months away, who is celebrating the milestone? Are there to be any new publications of his music? Where is www.colinmccphee.com?

As Canadians, how much of Colin McPhee’s story can we claim as our own? Maybe some of his music — even just a few pieces — will capture our ears and hearts?

This great talent, this tragic artist, this world-wanderer, this expat, this young pioneer, this Canadian: this Colin McPhee.

Who is celebrating?

Perhaps, it is time to start making plans.

Adam Sherkin
For more information about Sherkin and his upcoming recital, click here.

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