Saturday, September 13, 2008

Benjamin Britten

I am in the home stretch with Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, an exhausting and exhilirating account of 20th century art music. The tight weave he makes of the war and Hitler and German composers and suffering and embarrassing politics and ego ego ego was what bore me up during the past two weeks, the Wiemar republic by flashlight was a welcome respite from the tensions of hurricane season.

Ross can talk the goddamn talk as adroitly as he walks the walk, speaking in technical musical terms just enough to remind everyone that he actually knows what he's talking about on all fronts, but what struck me the hardest was when he got around to Benjamin Britten. The titans of the 20th century were wound up in the thread of history and context by Ross' masterful control of literary nuance, speaking of Nazis and Stalinists with the cool of context, but when he got to Britten, Ross is stopped short, hand on heart enrapt. I have heard this about Britten from others, that you will respect Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Strauss but Britten will sweep you out to sea.

Right now I'm letting the plunks and throbs and swoons of his First Suite for Cello, Op. 72 invade my consciousness and I get it - everything is in here and remarkably in its place. It's like walking into a cloud a kaleidoscope of stained glass and waves crashing and quiet glances and sunlight flickering through trees. I always thought Britten too contained, too pulled in, the same issue I have with Mozart, for my tastes. I mean, one cannot argue with Mozart's place in the "perfection" circle of the Venn diagram, its just that seamlessness and perfection always make me suspicious - the relative transparency of ragtag atonalism gives me that human "look, I'm just trying to figure this out too" feeling that puts the abstraction of music into the reachability of sympathetic fiction.

I'm not sure Britten has everything figured out like Mozart does, but he instead has focused his energies on beauty and the succinct expression of humanity through that beauty. His music is like a beautiful person that always does the same thing, dresses a certain way, moves a certain way, talks a certain way, not flawless but impeccably mannered, focused on maintaining that beauty, and while intellectually I like things a little fucked-up so that I have hooks into it, it's hard to argue with beautiful.

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