Faculty of Music

The Instrumental Britten

Monday, November 25, 8 p.m.
von Kuster Hall, Music Building
Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University
Ticket Information

Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury (1959)
Aaron Hodgson, Emily Bellman, Katie Clark, trumpets

Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca, op. 23 no. 1
Talisa Blackman, Caleb Mora, pianos

Nocturnal after John Dowland, op. 70
Robert Kubica, guitar
     very agitated
     gently rocking
     passacaglia & theme


Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, op. 49
Ian Franklin, oboe

Sonata in C, op. 65
Thomas Wiebe, cello
Stéphan Sylvestre, piano
     Scherzo - pizzicato
     Moto perpetuo



Hippocrates theorized that a person’s mood or behaviour was determined by the accumulation and balance of bodily fluids, or “humours.” In his formulation, the state of melancholy was thought to be caused by an abundance of “black bile”: a thick, heavy substance which “encouraged dark moods tormented by morbid fears and deep sorrows.” As an artist given to introspection, conflicted by his public and private selves, Benjamin Britten would no doubt have felt an affinity to a conception of the self as a constant struggle of the external against the internal.

Based on John Dowland’s song, “Come, heavy sleep,” Britten’s Nocturnal might be described as a theme and variations in reverse: through eight variations, Britten sets the song against a series of contrasting moods (musing, agitation, restlessness, etc.) before finally arriving at Dowland’s original, melancholic melody. Some commentators have suggested that by withholding the presentation of Dowland’s theme, Britten intends to evoke a lack of sleep, that only in sleep does one receive respite from the melancholies and anxieties of their waking life; others have noted that, on the contrary, Britten’s fascination with sleep and the “nocturnal” was not the nostalgic yearning for some long lost peace, but the uncovering of the depths of the unconscious mind. For Britten, the “heavy sleep” has already come, and with it those unspoken dreams which, in Britten’s words, “release many things which one thinks had better not be released.”

Nature, with its capacity for tremendous beauty and profound tragedy, was a source of inspiration for Britten in much the same way as the nocturnal and sleep. In his Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Britten draws from the stories of Pan, Phaeton, Niobe, Bacchus, Narcissus, and Arethusa, exploring the apparent conflict between conscious and unconscious, or external and internal. The stories Britten selected are linked by themes of obsession, whether obsession with another (eg. lust), or obsession with the self (eg. pride)—a regard for the external at the expense of the internal which was met with tragic, often ironic consequences. As in the Metamorphoses, Brittens’ motives undergo transformations which reflect those of the characters: take, for example, Niobe (third movement), whose pride in her beauty and powerful family aroused the fury of the gods, who then punished her by killing her fourteen children and turning her into a mountain: immense, breathtaking, yet inert. Note the contrast between Britten’s initial setting of Niobe’s theme—an emotional, wailing mezzo forte—and the last: a motionless pianissimo, senza espressivo.

The Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury was originally written for a pageant celebrating the anniversary of the Magna Carta, a 13th-century document which protected certain individual liberties from the arbitrary will of kings. In the score, Britten indicates that the trumpeters “should be placed as far apart as possible.” The physical separation of the performers is represented musically: the performers take solos in turn, each contrasting the other not only in tonality, but also in gesture. The solos are then performed simultaneously and, following a momentary feeling of disorientation, become almost inexplicably unified, a testament to the hope that out of chaos and suffering comes resolution.

Alexander Huggins (‘14)

In 1939, facing looming fascism in Europe, a pacifist Benjamin Britten left for North America to start anew. His Two Pieces for 2 pianos, Op. 23 represented a new beginning in composition as well. The first work in this set, composed in 1940 and entitled “Introduction and Rondo Alla Burlesca,” was written for two pianist friends, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. The Introduction begins with a foreboding and grim tone, perhaps a reflection of the war-torn country Britten left behind. The “burlesque” element of the Rondo is grotesque and hardly evocative of its name, which leads us to believe that a crudely ironic sense of humour so typical of Britten’s composition was inserted into the music. Tension is built in the ambivalent exploration of major and minor modes.

Britten’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major was his first foray into composing music with cello as the centerpiece. The five movement piece is tied together with a four note, step-wise motif heard throughout. The sonata was composed in 1961 with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in mind; however it seems also to have been influenced by the musical styles of composers Britten admired. The second theme of the first movement, “Dialogo,” is evocative of music by Alban Berg, whose music Britten revered. Béla Bartók’s influences can be heard in the primitive and playful “Scherzo – pizzicato.” The third movement, entitled “Elegia,” pays homage to the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Ghost” trio in its piano tremolo. Like an “elegy,” the music seems mournfully to recall the dead, as legend states that Beethoven’s trio may have harkened back to the ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The death imagery continues in the grotesque fourth movement, “Marcia.” The bitonal “march” music conjures the images of wretched soldiers marching under the command of their sergeant. The knowledge that Britten was a pacifist makes this march yet more ironic. In the finale, “Moto perpetuo,” the four-note motif heard previously is scrambled to spell the initials of Britten’s new friend, Dmitri Shostakovich. The German musical notation of D-E-flat-B-C is D-Es-C-H, or D. Sch. The piece spirals chromatically until “C major” triumphantly emerges at the final cadence.

Christina McCreery (‘15)