Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Britten

Music History Monday: Benjamin Britten: The Making of a Composer

We mark the birth on November 22, 1913 – 108 years ago today – of the English composer, pianist, and conductor Edward Benjamin Britten in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the eastern coast of England, roughly 105 miles northeast of London. He died in nearby Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976, at the age of 63. The danger of overstatement is great when tossing around superlatives, but with Britten it’s no danger at all. He was not just the most important English composer of the twentieth century; he was quite arguably the most important English-born composer since Henry Purcell, who was born in London in 1659, 246 years before Britten. Britain composed scads of music(that’s a musical term, “scads”): orchestral music, choral music, chamber music, vocal music, and film music as well. But pride of place must go to his dramatic works: his War Requiem (of 1962) and his fifteen operas. Those operas include Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Prodigal Son (1968), and Death in Venice (1974). Britten’s operas constitute, by any measure, the most significant body of opera composed during the twentieth century. Britten was lucky enough to have experienced fame […]

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The String Quartet in Time of War: Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 (1960)

Shostakovich: the SOVIET Composer Art, politics, and current events make problematic bedfellows, but they are a Ménage à trois that cannot be avoided when talking about Dmitri Shostakovich and his music. Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975, a few weeks shy of his 69th birthday. Shostakovich’s compositional career corresponded exactly with the history of the Soviet Union from 1917-1975. He began attending the St. Petersburg (Petrograd) Conservatory at the very end of the Tsarist era; he graduated and began his career during Lenin’s rule (the early 1920’s); he knew Stalin and was nearly purged twice, in 1936 and 1948; he survived the siege of Leningrad, kowtowed to Khrushchev, and died while Brezhnev was in power. Among the reasons Shostakovich managed to survive was that he was considered by the powers that were to be a yurodivy, a village idiot, a holy fool who protests in the name of humanity and not in the name of political change. In truth, he was a coward and a hero and everything in between. He saw his friends purged and killed; he was eyewitness to Stalin’s horrific “five year plans” as well […]

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The String Quartet in Time of War: Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 2 (1945)

“It” Benjamin Britten was born in 1913, on November 22: the feast day of St. Cecelia, Patron Saint of Music.  Britten’s birth date pleased his mother Edith no end.  Britten’s childhood friend Basil Reed recalled that: “[Britten’s mother was] determined that he should be a great musician.  Quite often we would talk about the three B’s – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms – and the fourth “B” was [to be] Britten.” His mother’s ambitions aside, Britten grew up in what he called “a very ordinary middle-class family” in Lowestoft, an East Anglian town on the North Sea 110 miles north east of London. Britten began piano lessons at seven. At the age of eight, he was enrolled in South Lodge Preparatory School just down the hill from his family home. The headmaster of the South Lodge School was a math teacher named Thomas Sewell, a Cambridge graduate and World War One veteran then in his mid-thirties.  If you were good at math – as was Britten – you had no problems with Sewell.  But if your math skills were not up to snuff, well, Sewell spared not the rod.  In a 1971 interview, Britten recalled: “I can remember – I think […]

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The String Quartet at a Time of War: Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 6

Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6 was written in early 1939, at a very dark time in his personal life and in history. Some background. Adolf Hitler came to power when he was appointed German Chancellor – the head of the government – on January 30, 1933.  The fools that arranged Hitler’s appointment did so because they thought he could be controlled.  Things didn’t work out that way.  By August of 1934, Hitler had outlawed all opposition political parties and assumed the mantle of the German presidency and Supreme Commander of the armed forces.  There would be no stopping him and his twisted regime until his death eleven years later, in April of 1945. Béla Bartók – pianist, composer, Hungarian patriot and a resident of the Hungarian capitol of Budapest – observed the rise of Nazism with undisguised revulsion.  When the Nazi’s marched into and occupied Austria in March of 1938, Bartók suspected that it was only a matter of time before Hungary was occupied as well.  He wrote to his friend and patron, Paul Sacher: “There is the imminent danger that Hungary will also surrender to this system of robbery and murder.  How I could then continue to live or […]

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The String Quartet in a Time of War: Pavel Haas, String Quartet No. 3

In March of 1936, Nazi Germany reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland and by doing so abrogated the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact.  The remilitarization of the Rhineland was driven by domestic politics, not unlike our own invasion of Iraq: Hitler needed to shore up his relationship with the army leadership and his right-wing power base.  Painfully, we now know that if France and Britain had acted in defense of the treaties, Germany’s generals were prepared to toss Hitler and his thugs out on their ears.  But France and Britain did not act; their populations were still traumatized by the First World War – the “war-to-end-all-wars” – a war they presumably “won” in 1918. Emboldened by international acquiescence, Hitler marched his army into Austria on March 12, 1938, the day after a well-planned coup d’état removed the legally elected Austrian government.  Germany immediately annexed Austria, calling the whole shebang “Anschluss”, meaning the “link-up”.  A plebiscite was held the following month, in which the Austrian people were asked to ratify the Anschluss.  The Nazis claimed 99.7% of the electorate voted in favor of the Anschluss. Sure they did. If England and France were going to stop Hitler, now was their best […]

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