Wednesday 9 April 2014

Britten and Weinberg

The recent programming on a Challenge records disc combined Weinberg's Violin Concerto alongside that of Benjamin Britten. As well as being an excellent album (see my review here), the combination of Weinberg and Britten proved a well-suited duo. There are numerous reasons for this, the most obvious also being the most simple: Britten's influence can often be heard in Weinberg's music, particularly in his Operas.

Britten and Shostakovich, 1966.

 The close friendship between Britten and Shostakovich is well known. Britten was one of the few people to stand up for Shostakovich's opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' after its British premiere in 1936. Shostakovich was so impressed with Britten's War Reqiuem that he held it up as an example to his composition students. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the two composers visited each other. Britten and Peter Pears stayed with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya for New Year's, 1966. Over the course of their stay, they often saw Shostakovich and his wife Irina. Peter Pears wrote of the visit in his diary:

25th December, 1966
Christmas dinner at Slava's [i.e. - Rostropovich's]... Dmitri and Irena Shostakovich were there, punctual as always... Shostakovich in good form, talkative, nervous, Irena gentle, quiet, a marvellous foil for him.
1st January, 1967
 We were summoned for 10:00 pm at Dmitri's...We had a quick nip of vodka came a meal around a long table groaning with drink and eats, and presents...a score of Dmitri's Stepan Razin for Ben, and a record of the same for me.
The Shostakovich's visited Britten at home in Aldeburgh in 1972, Shostakovich particularly excited to see the sketches for Death in Venice. Shostakovich wrote that had it not been for the language barrier that existed between himself and Britten, the two could have become close friends.

The musical parallels are close, with both composers adapting twelve-note rows into their music at around the same time, and each generously quoting the other's music. Notably - see Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony for the strong influence from Britten. With such a strong bond between the two composers, it was natural for Weinberg to be strongly familiar with Britten's music.

Admittedly, there isn't a scrap of recorded evidence to link the two. But it is certainly tempting to suggest that Weinberg would have met Britten during his stays in Moscow. We can certainly say that Weinberg and Shostakovich discussed Britten's music at length, and Weinberg's familiarity with Britten's work is evinced by his collection of scores and records. Shostakovich and Weinberg conversed about music on an almost daily basis. It is certainly tantalising to suggest that Shostakovich could have mentioned Weinberg's name to Britten.

Weinberg's Requiem, Op. 96, owes a large amount to Britten's War Reqiuem, a work that Shostakovich loved (according to Yevtushenko, author of 'Babi Yar', a poem that Shostakovich used in his Thirteenth Symphony, Shostakovich listened to Britten's War Reqiuem on repeat, crying all the way through).

An immediately noticeable similarity between the two works is the use of boy's voices to depict innocence. In Britten's case, the boy's choir sing texts by war poet Wilfred Owen interspersed between the text of the requiem mass. Weinberg's Requiem uses a selection of poetry from authors including Garcia Lorca and Mikhael Dudkin, in a multi-national array that also echoes Britten's War Requiem. They differ in their complexity, however, as Weinberg's work is beyond the grasp of amateur ensembles. Partly as a result of this, Weinberg's Requiem was not performed until 2009, in Liverpool. Meanwhile, Britten's War Reqiuem was famously commissioned for the reopening of Coventry Cathedral, and was premiered to international acclaim in 1962, four years before Weinberg began writing his work. 

It is in Weinberg's operas that the Britten influence becomes more telling. David Nice has rightly pointed out that 'by the late 1960s, when Weinberg completed The Passenger, one great composer of Russian operas, Sergei Prokofiev, was long dead, and the other, Shostakovich, had produced nothing completely new for the operatic stage in decades'. As such, Britten was the obvious leader in opera on the world stage at that time.

Weinberg waited until relatively late in his career before turning to opera. His first opera, The Passenger, is arguably is masterpiece (and you can read more about it in my article here), set in Auschwitz, in a triumph of humanist drama. Throughout, there are noticeable Britten-like passages, often built around chains of thirds. For instance, there is the following passage in The Passenger:

Strikingly reminiscent of the first sea interlude in Britten's Peter Grimes:

The similarities continue throughout Weinberg's other operas. For instance, there is Weinberg's use of folk songs and musical quotation, effortlessly woven into the music to emphasise aspects of the drama - a technique used extensively in Britten's operas. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Lamplighter's song in The Portrait - replete with characteristic Weinbergian fourths. The frequent use of Celesta in The Passenger also recalls Peter Grimes, and Weinberg's more extended use of percussion in The Passenger even anticipates Britten's Death in Venice.

To conclude, Britten's influence is easy to identify in Weinberg's music, as well as on a more abstract level, as they both shared similar humanistic ideals - in Britten's case, extending to his decision to be a conscientious objector during WWII. The question of how Weinberg came to know Britten's works is easily addressed when Britten's friendship with Shostakovich is taken into account, and the prescence of Britten's style in Weinberg's operas seems glaringly obvious if we consider that he was a world-leader on the operatic stage at that time (though, importantly, Weinberg would not have heard a Britten opera in concert in the Soviet Union during this time; his knowledge came through scores and recordings). Weinberg's debt to Britten is a fascinating trait - I intend to further this introductory article with a more thorough examination of Weinberg's operas, including The Portrait and The Idiot.

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