"Songs of Experience"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 27, 2006.
In July, 1945, Benjamin Britten accompanied the violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a brief tour of defeated Germany. One day, the two men visited the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and performed works by Mozart and others for a silent but intent crowd of former inmates. Stupefied by what he had seen, Britten went home to the East Anglian coast and set to music the most spiritually scouring poetry that he could find—the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. He composed nine songs at feverish speed, beginning, on August 2nd, with “Oh my blacke Soule!,” and ending, on August 19th, with “Death be not proud.” While he wrote, Death had more to celebrate: several hundred thousand people were vaporized by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan. On August 6th, the day of Hiroshima, Britten set Sonnet XIV, which begins, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” There was an eerie coincidence at work here, for Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the American nuclear program, was spellbound by the same poem, and had it in mind when he named the site of the first atomic test Trinity.
Britten is not the kind of artist one associates with great turning points in history. He was, despite his reputation as England’s preëminent composer, a loner, an independent man. He prided himself on his parochialism, tailoring his works to churches and halls around East Anglia and to the amateur musicians who patronized them. He also wrote big operas for international stages, but he kept returning to his roots, his obsessions, his elliptical self. He thought that there was too much intellectual grandstanding in modern music, and demanded that composers make themselves more useful to ordinary people. All the same, his “Holy Sonnets of John Donne” are a titanic statement, one of the most penetrating responses to the Second World War. They do not try to depict horror; instead, they offer the consolation of sublime, transcendent rage. At the end of the cycle, the tenor declaims, on a rising major scale, the words “And death shall be no more”; then he bears down on the word “death” for nine long beats; and, finally, over a clanging dominant-tonic cadence, he thunders, “Thou shalt die.” Death does not die, but possibly shudders for a moment.
Ian Bostridge, the British tenor, recently sang an all-Britten program at Zankel Hall, the space underneath Carnegie. It was the first in a series of concerts that the singer is presenting this spring, under Carnegie’s Perspectives rubric. Now forty-one, Bostridge has assembled a repertory that ranges across several centuries and several languages; his Carnegie concerts include German lieder, Italian arias by Handel, and twentieth-century works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, and Lutoslawski. The role of curator falls naturally to him, for he is not only a lyric tenor of uncanny focus and intensity but also an accredited scholar (D.Phil., Oxford, 1990, “Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c. 1650-c. 1750”) and a deft commentator on musical matters. The day after his recital, I went to talk to him about the undervalued art of singing Britten.
Britten’s operas are heard reasonably often in New York—Gotham Chamber Opera recently mounted a musically well-turned production of his 1947 comedy, “Albert Herring”—but the songs do not get their due. At Zankel, Bostridge sang Britten’s five Canticles, based on various religious texts, together with the surging song cycle “Winter Words,” a setting of Thomas Hardy poems. A search of Times reviews and listings suggests that the cycle has received six or seven performances in New York in fifty years. Bostridge may have given the New York premières of the last two Canticles. Even stranger, I couldn’t find any evidence of a performance of “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne” in this city since 1989.
“The way some people talk about Britten is an example of everything that went wrong with music appreciation in the late twentieth century,” Bostridge told me, over lunch in Chelsea. “For example, they say that he’s not very bright in a literary way. You hear this patronizing guff about how there is something wrong with his setting of Rimbaud’s French in ‘Les Illuminations.’ In fact, Rimbaud’s diction is on purpose peculiar, because he was in London when he wrote, and was mixing French and English words. Actually, I can’t think of any other composer who was so ambitious in his choice of poetry.” Bostridge also mentioned the continuing unease over Britten’s personality, his psychology, and, above all, his sexuality, which expressed itself in one enduring relationship, with the tenor Peter Pears, and in a series of sexless infatuations with boys.
“I have to confess that none of that is very interesting to me,” Bostridge said, with a rueful smile. “What strikes me is that so many of Britten’s songs aren’t about romantic love at all. Quite a bit of the poetry I sing—the German Romantic lieder of Schumann and Schubert—is, when you get down to it, slightly embarrassing, adolescent stuff. Britten is an adult composer, writing about adult things. The first Canticle, ‘My beloved is mine,’ is maybe coincidentally a sweet tribute to Peter Pears, but it is really a seventeenth-century poem using erotic imagery in a religious way, and there’s a very strong current of that in Christian tradition. The ironic thing about Britten was that he was actually so buttoned up, so embarrassed by sex—so, you know, English."
Bostridge, like many of his generation, was introduced to Britten by way of the composer’s huge repertory of music for children. Growing up in London, he sang in a boys’ choir, learning pieces like “Friday Afternoons” and “A Ceremony of Carols.” He played a Rat in “Noye’s Fludde” and the Captain in “The Golden Vanity.” In his teen-age years and early twenties, as he became a devotee of the German lieder tradition, he lost touch with the composer. Then he came across a classic Decca LP that featured Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing “Songs and Proverbs of William Blake” on one side and Pears singing “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne” on the other. “If somebody had asked me in the abstract if someone could make fantastic music out of Donne’s sonnets, I’d have said, ‘Come on, they’re great as they are. They make music themselves.’ But, when I heard this music, I was completely bowled over.”
“The Holy Sonnets” were a calling card for Bostridge early in his career. Difficult as it was to compete with Pears’s electrifying delivery, Bostridge made the music his own, in concert and in a fine recording for Hyperion. Recently, with the Berlin Philharmonic, under Simon Rattle, he made an authoritative recording of “Les Illuminations,” “Serenade,” and “Nocturne,” three major cycles for tenor and orchestra. He is also making his way through the Britten operas; he has sung “The Rape of Lucretia,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and will soon take on “Billy Budd” and “Death in Venice.” Eventually, he wants to tackle the role of the abusive fisherman in “Peter Grimes,” which, these days, is usually assigned to a heroic tenor. “I’m keen to explore my inner sadist,” he told me.
“As a tenor, I’m just grateful for the existence of this music,” he went on. “As with Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf, you can take the serious, single-minded approach—you can do a one-composer recital, and it really works. It’s complex, sophisticated music, but it’s also an endless pleasure to sing. At the center of the ‘Serenade’ is the Dirge, which is very dark stuff, and terribly grating on the voice. Straight after comes the Hymn, with its coloratura, so health-giving for the voice. Out of nowhere, you get this gift.”
There was no question that Bostridge’s first concert at Zankel was music for adults. This was not the sort of vocal recital at which the listener could expect to skim the poems in the few minutes before the lights went down. The Canticles, which call not only for tenor and piano but also, at various points, for countertenor, baritone, harp, and French horn, incorporate the ecstatic devotions of Francis Quarles; the Chester miracle play “Abraham and Isaac”; an apocalyptic wartime ode by Edith Sitwell (“Still falls the Rain— / Dark as the world of man, black as our loss”); and two of T. S. Eliot’s most abstruse Christian meditations, “Journey of the Magi” and “The Death of Saint Narcissus.” Britten wrote each Canticle in the wake of a major operatic effort, as if to purge theatricality from his system. All his life, he veered between a childishly innocent view of human nature and a preacher’s consciousness of the workings of sin: he had trouble reconciling the light and dark within himself. Bostridge, who says that he is “not stunningly religious,” points out that in Canticle II, as in the Sanctus of Britten’s “War Requiem,” the composer’s sense of God is “alien and frightening and Other, a voluntarist God who can do as He likes.” He added, “It’s a quite scary thing to grapple with.”
This riven consciousness is something that Bostridge conveys supremely well. He is not the sort of recitalist who processes all different kinds of music through the same lovely tone and smooth technique. Instead, he works to bring out the storytelling and the drama inherent in song. He is capable of singing in many voices at once, sounding like Noël Coward in one moment and the God of Abraham in the next. Fischer-Dieskau was his model early on, but he also admires Bob Dylan and others who use their voices like knives, to cut through convention. In “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” a harrowing scene of failed martyrdom, Bostridge did a hairpin turn in the lines “Then he had been a young girl / Caught in the woods by a drunken old man,” going from a smooth, silky delivery to a creepy sort of muttering shout. The singer is almost too happy to take risks, but his technique is secure enough so that he almost always gets away with them.
It was a tribute to Bostridge’s standing within the vocal world that he was able to attract two star collaborators to fill out the extra roles in the Canticles: the countertenor Bejun Mehta, who sang the part of Isaac in Canticle II, and the baritone Nathan Gunn, who filled out the complement of the Magi in Canticle IV. David Jolley provided richly melancholy horn solos in Canticle III, and Bridget Kibbey, the harpist in Canticle V, caught the various shades of glitter and menace in the music. Most important, Julius Drake, at the piano, provided a kind of resonant stage for Bostridge’s personae, creating a meticulously nuanced play of light and shadow around the voice.
Bostridge’s singing of “Winter Words” went to another level. When Britten wrote this cycle, he was no longer the ferocious young genius who had written “Peter Grimes” and the “Holy Sonnets.” He was turning forty, and had experienced disappointments together with triumphs. He had discovered that his domestic life with Peter Pears was not going to erase the darker strains in his nature. For “Winter Words,” he collected various Thomas Hardy poems about the fleetingness of experience, which weigh the sensations of the instant (a boy’s boredom on a long train ride, the creak of an old table, a certain light in the trees in November) against the unfeeling vastness of time. Britten’s music finds precise images for that heavy theme, often by juxtaposing bursts of figuration against extended, hypnotically repetitive chordal patterns. Bostridge here set aside the slightly demonic aura that he often delights in presenting onstage (and that cannot be detected in his lunch-table manner); instead, he emphasized the tenderness of his voice, its straw-in-the-wind quality.
Britten’s song cycles very often end with a world-stopping cry from the heart: “Death be not proud”; Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLIII, in “Nocturne”; Keats’s sonnet “To Sleep,” in “Serenade.” Each is a passionate protest against mundane consciousness, the facts of life, the way things are. “Before Life and After,” which closes “Winter Words,” is the most extreme, and most affecting, of these denunciations of the outer world. Over a slow, solemn procession of triadic harmonies, it remembers “a time there was . . . when all went well,” a primal state before “the disease of feeling germed,” and wonders whether such a time could come again. I don’t remember anything about how Bostridge sang the last words, “How long, how long?”—only the storm of emotion that was contained in them, the desperation, sorrow, rage, and hope.