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 project exploring 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.
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.