Benjamin Britten was openly gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in his native England. During World War II, he drew public anger when he registered as a conscientious objector and then set sail for Canada. Yet despite a controversial life, he was one of England’s most commercially successful classical composers.
“Even if you consider the successful 20th-century composers of the world, Britten is at the top,” said music critic Jiao Yuan-pu (焦元溥). “He had an elegant style that he kept very accessible — he even did TV shows and pieces for the BBC.”
Jiao will lead the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO, 國家交響樂團) in marking the centenary of the British composer with a lecture-recital at the National Recital Hall on Nov. 23.
The program features six pieces, main stopping points along Britten’s career. Jiao will preface each with a brief Chinese-language talk on its structure and history.
The opening performance, by the NSO’s Su Ming-huei (蘇酩惠), is of a cello sonata by Frank Bridge: “Britten’s teacher and a kind of father figure,” Jiao said. “This is something you don’t hear often in Taiwan, but it’s a direct predecessor to Britten.”
Pianist Vera Hui-pin Hsu (許惠品) will follow with selections from an early Britten work, Holiday Diary, a suite of short solos. “Funfair” is a quick thrilling toccata, and “Sailing” is a peaceful musical picture with a breeze that causes brief turbulence in the middle section.
Holiday Diary is one of Britten’s very few pieces written for his own instrument, the piano, and it’s inspired by his boyhood trips to the seaside, said Jiao.
The program also includes Britten’s own cello sonata, a flashy piece with copious double, triple and quadruple stops and a guitar-like pizzicato. Written for cello virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich, the sonata was the beginning of a long friendship between the composer and musician, and a professional collaboration that yielded Britten’s famed cello suites.
Soprano Grace Lin (林慈音) will perform three selections from Britten’s vocal works: On this Island — a song-cycle based on the work of W.H. Auden — Gloriana and Peter Grimes, which includes a libretto from George Crabbe’s The Borough.
Britten was a notably literary composer, said Jiao. He was drawn to themes from Auden and Crabbe; he used Shakespeare for many of his stage operas. Britten’s first TV opera, Owen Wingrave, was based on a short story by Henry James.
Even with the high-brow themes, his music was easy to like, Jiao continued. The operas drew full-house crowds at their premiere and today remain some of the most-performed pieces in the standard international repertoire.
“Musically, sometimes it was violent, sometimes it was calm. But Britten had a distinct sound: clean and direct, precise, always accessible,” he said.
The centenary lecture-recital is part of the What is Composition? Lecture Concerts (焦點講座), a three-year-old series organized by the NSO.