10/08/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Case for Barber and Britten

For the past six years I have directed a festival of 20/21st century music at the University of Arizona. Any festival worthy of the name has a vision or reason for being. The premise of our model, The Music + Festival, is to contextualize the music with a musicological component, and to include added value, in a rich introductory symposium on the music and lives of the composers, and to include another aspect in regard to the music, as in movies- that feature the music of the composers-, or dance. We usually present composers in pairs, to diversify the musical palette or to express similarities of a common view. We also usually pair an American composer with a non-American composer.

The first festival presented Crumb and Messiaen, both of whom bring an eclectic, naturalistic, and religio-mystical approach to their music. Both are willing to ride on the edge of kitsch to make their larger philosophical and musical points (sometimes they even get cut). With both there is an attempt to seek or portray the holy or transcendental, and they do this better than most.

The following festival featured Ives and Copland, the two progenitors of American classical music. Ives incorporated all music into his own, including high and low, classical, jazz, and folk, spiritual and symphonic, traditional and experimental. Copland touched on, or created, various aspects of major musical tendencies from the 20's to the 70's with his work of in three major periods, beginning with proto-serial music, to the Americana style, to his work within the serial lexicon. By presenting the music of both composers, we juxtaposed the music of two composers who worked throughout most of the 20th century, defined many of its trends, and provided a context for the future development of American classical music.

In 2010-11 we presented John Corigliano and Toru Takemitsu. Corigliano writes in the grand symphonic tradition of Copland, Harris, and Bernstein. Takemitsu is considered the first major Japanese composer who effectively combined elements of Western and Eastern music and philosophy into his music. As the music of both appeared or was written for film, we partnered with the UA's Hanson Institute for Film to present Ran by Kurosawa/Takemitsu, and The Red Violin by Girard/Corigliano.

The next festival highlighted the music of Bartok, Ligeti, and Beaser. Bartók, a pianist, composer, and ethnomusicologist. incorporated in his music elements of folk music, created evocations in his 'night music', and used exotic scales and new tonal resources, all which were pivotal to developments of more recent music. Ligeti, a Hungarian like Bartok, and a Jew (unlike Bartok), was one of the fathers of the European Post-War avant-garde. A survivor of the Holocaust and the post-war disaster of communism, he was a man with a perennially restless mind, who explored electronic music, sound-mass and micro-polyphony, the music of sub-Saharan Africa, minimalism. But the musical results were always distinctive and individual, and on his own terms. After surviving the Nazis and communists he wasn't about to submit to the totalitarian tendencies of other members of the European Post-War avant-garde. Beaser, head of the composition department at the Juilliard School, possesses a lyrical gift that is present even in his non-vocal pieces. An important figure among the "New Tonalists," he has established his own language as a synthesis of Western tradition and American vernacular. (As a disclaimer, Beaser and I have been friends and colleagues since our student days at Yale.) Ligeti's and Bartok's compositions were featured in the film portion of the festival. which included Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining.

The fifth iteration presented the work of Igor Stravinsky in honor of the 100th anniversary of the premiere of his Rite of Spring. I couldn't NOT do this as the score to this work has sat next to my drafting table for 35 years (and yes, I do occasionally refer to it). Stravinsky was the major force in music in the first half of the 20th Century and set the agenda for much of the latter half. The festival looked at the output of his entire career: the Russian period, neo-classical (or pan-historical), to the final serial phase. A collaborator of the Dance, we performed numerous works in this genre as well.

This long preamble brings us to this year's festival, which features the music of the American Samuel Barber and the British Benjamin Britten. I chose these composers for their similarities, even while their music is highly distinct from each other. Daniel Felsenfeld, in his simple but not simple-minded book on these two, suggests many similarities as well.
Both were among the major forces in music in the first half of the 20th Century, certainly in their respective countries. Their music is lyrical, dramatic, and connected to the past. While they both developed and evolved throughout their careers, they always wrote music that was purposefully for an audience, and not infrequently, an occasion. They were decidedly part of their societies, not pushing against established norms, but working within them. They both wrote extensively for the voice with Britten writing some of the most popular operas of our time, and Barber writing some of the most memorable songs in the American literature. They were each experimental in their own way. One need only mention the effect of gamelan and Japanese music on that of Britten towards the end of his life, or the somewhat radical use of percussion in Barber's Third Essay.

They are both outliers in musical history as presented in the Academy, where the course of development is "polyphony, sonata-allegro form, romanticism, atonality, and eventually the radicalism and hijinks of the twentieth century." I can assure you that this is so, as I never heard their names mentioned in my studies at Hampshire College or Yale. Their music was certainly considered too staid, conservative, anachronistic, and I suspect, beautiful, to be considered worthy of study. They both grew up in decidedly middle class homes, had pushy and entranced mothers, were scarred by WWII (Britten, a pacifist, "escaped" to American during the war's first years), and lived their lives in relative seclusion. Britten was also a fabulous conductor and Barber a professional quality singer.

They were both gay, and had life-long partners who were also major musicians in their own right- Peter Pears, a tenor, with Britten, and Menotti, a composer, with Barber. Fehlsenfeld devotes a chapter on the question of sexual orientation and its bearing on music, although he actually explores this only in relation to Britten, as regards his alleged interest in young boys and sadism, the latter expressed in his operas. I would agree that this can perhaps explain motivational aspects of the music but certainly not its meaning, as without texts this would be a mute point. Barber is given a pass, as his psyche seems less dark, while he too was prone to self-doubt and depression. But these attributes are pretty widespread I dare say in the compositional community, straight or gay.

For most of their careers Barber and Britten wrote in styles that looked back to, or were simply a part of, the tradition. While this was accepted of Strauss, it was and remains, problematic for our understanding of these composers. It was perhaps a good career move for Strauss to die shortly after the war, while Barber and Britten somehow outlived their time, as their music was sadly "too spikey to appeal to the bulk of listeners, and not overtly complex enough for the modernists". They wrote beautifully and naturally for the voice, wrote for the greatest performers of their time, with examples being the collaboration of Rostropovich and Britten, and Horowitz premiering Barber's Piano Sonata, or Toscanini's championing of Barber's orchestral music.

So this festival helps in the correction of a historical wrong. Barber and Britten had the sad misfortune of finishing their lives in a time of "cultural tumult" that belittled their accomplishments and dismissed their genius. This festival places them back in the middle of the historical narrative where, because of the sheer beauty and elegance of their music, they so clearly belong.