Part of the Rest Is Noise Audio Guide
The beach at Aldeburgh, England. Photograph by Alex Ross.
Note: The first page number is for the hardback edition, the second number is for the paperback.
The eastern coast of the British Isles, conjured in sound by Benjamin Britten in his masterpiece Peter Grimes (see p. 413 / p. 449 of The Rest is Noise):
Colin Davis conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Philips 289 462 847-2.
The website of the Britten Pears Foundation, based in the composer's former home in Aldeburgh, has a detailed chronology of Britten's career and background for many of his works. The BBC 4 archive has several interviews with the composer, including one in which he recalls his prodigious production of works before the age of thirteen (one tone poem was entitled Chaos and Cosmos).
The young Britten's astonishing musical ability — together with a hint of his future psychological obsessions — are evident in his Quatre Chansons francaises, written at the age of fourteen. Note in particular this setting of "L'Enfance," by Victor Hugo, in which a child's innocence is juxtaposed with a mother's suffering ("Sorrow is a fruit"):
Ian Bostridge, tenor, with Daniel Harding conducting the Britten Sinfonia; EMI 56534.
From the song cycle Winter Words, the tenor's cry of "How long, how long" (pp. 418-19 / p. 455):
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor, and Graham Johnson, piano; Helios 55067.
During his American sojourn (pp. 419-21 / pp. 455-57), Britten collaborated with W. H. Auden on a musical-theater piece titled Paul Bunyan. Here is a passage from the finale, which wavers between the satirical and the slightly mystical:
Philip Brunelle conducting soloists, chorus, and orchestra of the Plymouth Music Series; Virgin 90710.
One of Britten's first masterpieces was the song cycle Serenade, setting poems on the theme of sleep. In the movement titled "Elegy," Britten sets William Blake's "The Sick Rose" (p. 421 / pp. 457-58):
Ian Bostridge, tenor, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic; EMI 58049.
GRIMES AND ITS SUCCESSORS
Here are some brief excerpts from Colin Davis's recording of Peter Grimes, with Jon Vickers in the title role. First, the emergence of the "gossip" motive ("Why did you do this"):
"What harbour shelters peace?":
The full onset of the storm:
The "Sunday Morning" interlude :
The beginning of the Passacaglia interlude, with the theme heard in the pizzicato cellos and basses at the outset and successive variations representing Grimes's boy apprentice alone, his work with Grimes, a "mistake," and the despair that follows:
The crowd becomes bloodthirsty:
Jon Vickers as Grimes, with Colin Davis conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Philips 289 462 847-2.
Here is a video of Vickers performing the mad scene:
The mysterious chords that accompany the "interview" between Captain Vere and Billy in Billy Budd (p. 432 / pp. 469-70):
Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, with Peter Pears as Vere; Decca 417428.
The twelve-note theme on which The Turn of the Screw is based (pp. 432-33 / p. 470):
Quint and Miss Jessel intone "The ceremony of innocence is drowned," with the "screw theme" laced through their eerily beautiful arabesques:
Here is the ethereally beautiful chorus "On the ground, sleep sound" from A Midsummer Night's Dream (pp. 433-34 / pp. 471-72). The four chords that together spell out a twelve-note row are heard at 0:09, 0:14, 0:18, and 0:23.
The finale of the War Requiem (pp. 434-35 / pp. 472-73), in its 1963 American premiere:
Many other samples of Britten's music can be heard at the Boosey site.
BRITTEN AND SHOSTAKOVICH
The supremely gloomy beginning of Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet (p. 437 / p. 475), with the "D-S-C-H" motto audible at the outset:
The "breaking down the door" music in the "Babi Yar" movement of Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony (p. 438 / p. 476):
Nikita Storojev, bass, with Okko Kamu conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the City of Birmingham Choir, and the University of Warwick Chorus; Chandos 8540 (follow the link to more audio samples).
In the first movement of his Fourteenth Symphony, a setting of Lorca's poem "De profundis," Shostakovich nods to his friend Britten by borrowing an effect from A Midsummer Night's Dream — double basses sliding up a major seventh and then going back down (p. 439 / p. 477). The quotation follows the lines: "A hundred ardent lovers / fell into eternal sleep." Here is Britten:
Britten conducting the London Symphony; London 425 663-2.
And Shostakovich, in a 1970 performance from Aldeburgh with Britten conducting (quotation at 0:45):
Mark Reshetin, bass, with Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra; BBC Music 8013.
From Britten's deeply haunting final opera, Death in Venice, the music that immediately follows Aschenbach's death, with gamelan-like sounds representing the boy Tadzio:
Steuart Bedford conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, Decca 000410202.