This past weekend in Kitchener-Waterloo, I had the unusual pleasure of being able to sit out in the audience to enjoy the second half of our concerts, as my performing duties were done as soon the program hit halftime. Led by their music director, Edwin Outwater, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony played Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the 'Pathétique', after intermission - a piece I had not really listened to intently in quite a long time. It actually happens to be one of the last pieces I played in my youth orchestra in Detroit before permanently putting my violin back in its case, so it holds a very special place in my musical heart. I relished the opportunity to enjoy a live performance of it after singing Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, & Strings at the end of the first half of the program. However, as I listened the Symphony unfurl and reminisced about days past in which I let my teenage-angst express itself freely as I played impassioned and tortured melodies high on my violin's G-string in the symphony's final movement (an emo-joy that only other angst-ridden teenage violinists will truly understand), I found myself listening to the piece with slightly different ears than I expected.
Beyond its sheer musical brilliance and heart-wrenching beauty, the Pathétique is legendary also for the fact that Tchaikovsky conducted its premiere just 9 days before dying, perhaps intending his final symphony to be a musical suicide note. As I listened to the beginning of the haunting last movement, it dawned on me just how gay the evening's program was - seminal works by two great gay composers juxtaposed against each other, with some thematic similarities, and yet starkly different. The two composers' biographies have many commonalities on the surface: Both were greatly respected and quite famous composers within their respective lifetimes, both were officially recognized by a great many international institutions as well as their respective homelands' monarchs for their work, both were gay men living in times when homosexual activities were illegal.
While both composers' works on the program explored themes relating to death, Tchaikovsky's struck me as so much more anguished - the rawness, brutality, and depth of his depression so unapologetically apparent and there for all of us to witness and experience with him. It then struck me how different these two composers' lives were, too. Here I was listening to what was quite likely a lonely and tortured gay man's symphonic goodbye to the world, and I had just performed a piece that Britten had written for his life-partner of 35 years. The dichotomy could not have been more striking - one man had lived a life struggling with depression, unable to allow himself to live openly with any real lover or to develop any type of romantic connection fully in any sort of lasting or deeply fulfilling way, while the other spent most of his adult life with a man who was not only his creative muse, but also the love of his life. One man quite likely committed suicide, the other died of natural causes in the arms of his lifelong lover. There is a darkness to both composers' works, certainly, but in Tchaikovsky's symphony, personal anguish and inner conflict pour out because they have no other outlet, while Britten's Serenade is music that is inspired by love - a love that was known, accepted, and largely supported in his own wide-reaching community. In the last song of Britten's Serenade, which is perhaps the darkest moment of the orchestral cycle that explores the various stages of night, the singer welcomes sleep and then begs to never to wake again, asking for the "casket of his soul" to be sealed. Yet, the solo french horn sounds the call of a distant sunrise just after - a musical gesture that I take as a sign that he will wake up again and life will go on - the cycle will begin again anew. Tchaikovsy's Pathétique ends with a heartbeat figure in the basses that gradually slows, and then simply stops.
In a year that has seen so many giantstepsforward for the gay community here in the US, and so many setbacks and violence against the gay community abroad, the juxtaposition of the two pieces was particularly moving. How much we have evolved - the evening's concert was conducted by a man who had just happily married his partner in Hawaii in front of their family and friends just weeks before our concerts last weekend. Yet, how much remains the same - gayteensuicide still abounds, making organizations like the Trevor Project still necessary.
While it's such a gift to have such beautiful music in our midst, how tragic it is to think of the abuse and struggles we still endure just to be able to love freely.
My favorite recording of the Pathétique - Eugene Ormandy with the Philly Orchestra. Movement 4 - Adagio lamentoso:
I'm in Canada for the weekend, so will miss out on the American Thanksgiving fun, but that doesn't leave me any less thankful for the lovely friends who keep posting this photo from www.thecountrycook.net:
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back at home. Hope you are eating lots of Turkey. And stuffing. Yes, screw gluten-free for the day and live large. No pun intended.
A lot of critics and music-journalists often decry the use of anniversaries as programmatic crutches upon which to wheel out the music of composers and fill out their season performance calendars. Just about all of them have conceded, though, that in the case of Benjamin Britten and this centenary year of his birth, there is good reason to fête this man who was one of the 20th century's greatest composers, as his music is quite underserved outside of his native land.
Since I began my own personal projectexploring Britten's music back in 2006, I've been repeatedly told time and time again that "Britten doesn't sell". What has been gratifying about this centennial year has been watching presenters and musicians alike stop thinking to themselves "Britten doesn't sell" and actually get out there and start selling Britten.
The irony, of course, is that what compels me so much about Britten's music is that it does, indeed, sell. He has the power to touch an audience in ways that few other composers are able. I've seen this time and time again as my various colleagues and I have watched audiences laugh, cry, and gasp during our recital programs of his music. I was again reminded of the huge emotional impact his music has last week, during a sold-out performance of his War Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony in Strathmore. Watching people's eyes flood with tears as the piece unfurled, the traditional latin requiem mass angrily/sadly/disbelievingly juxtaposed against the poetry of the killed-in-combat, World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, it was overwhelming to experience the power of his music - just as impactful as any other composer of the "standard" classical music repertoire. Perhaps more-so, in some ways. I hope that the great world-wide efforts to program his music this year extend beyond this centenary, and that we continue to experience and explore his music more regularly. This is timeless music for everyone everywhere - powerful, meaningful and beautiful music that must continue to be played, presented, and heard.
In addition to his music, I think that perhaps the most important aspect of the occasion of this centenary has been the opportunity for us to get to know the man, as well as his music. Britten was, simply put, and extraordinary human being, and in getting to know him and the biography of his life over the past few years, I have found a hero in him. Living as a gay man during a time in which homosexual acts were illegal, he not only lived openly and with integrity, but also had the audacity and courage to let his sexuality and his relationship with his life partner of Peter Pears inform his work, creating some of the most beautiful music of the 20th century. Beyond his relationship with Pears, Britten forged an extraordinary community of incredible individuals and artists around him, who also inspired him. Working together with these people, he set out to change the world around him through his art. He not only composed great works that explored important themes (such as the War Requiem and Still Falls the Rain, which directly challenge humanity to consider the horrible atrocities we commit upon each other), but also created new venues and platforms for our art-form to flourish and grow (like the Aldeburgh Festival and the English Opera Group), and creatively invented new ways for young people to experience and learn about music (like his opera Noye's Fludde). He used his music to engage communities not only in a dialogue and meditation about the nature of being human, but also brought them together, fostering a stronger sense of fellowship and a greater appreciation for the arts.
Beyond the simple fact that Britten would have turned 100 today, celebrating Benjamin Britten could not be more timely - as we classical musicians struggle to find our footing in the 21st century, we could all take a cue from his willingness to innovate and engage. We could all stand to model his keen awareness of the power that music and musicians have to knit communities closer together, and to change not only our own lives, but also the lives of those around us for the better.
A very happy 100th birthday to Mr. Britten, wherever he may be celebrating today in the afterlife. Our world is a richer and more beautiful place because of you and your work, and I hope we can all take a cue from your work and life as we forge ahead with our own.
NPR Music kindly invited Sivan and I to join their Britten Centenary celebrations this month for their Field Recordings series. While Britten was living in the US in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he lived for a while in Brooklyn in a group house that boasted such roommates as W.H. Auden, Paul Bowles, and even Gypsy Rose Lee. A colorful crowd, to be sure…
NPR thought it would be fun to evoke the modern version of that Brooklyn bohemian-ness that Britten lived during his American sojourn by hosting a house concert at a modern-day group house in Brooklyn.
A belated thank you to the very sweet and generous audience member at Spivey Hall in Atlanta the week before last who thought to bring this all the way back from their trip to London for me. It's proudly displayed on my backpack.