Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pink Elephants

A week from tonight, I'll be performing with guitarist, Eliot Fisk, with Da Camera of Houston. The program is comprised of music performed by Sir Peter Pears and the famed guitarist, Julian Bream - who accompanied Pears with increasing frequency towards the end of Britten's life, the period when Britten wasn't anymore able to accompany Pears in recital due to the deterioration of his right hand after undergoing heart surgery in 1973.

Bream and Pears
The program opens with a song that I initially thought was just a simple silly song, but has over the past couple of months given me pause.  As I've studied it in preparation for our concert next week, I've found myself pondering the song much more than I ever thought it would, because of it's strange and uncharacteristic (for Britten) message.  The song, the opening song of Britten's cycle for tenor and guitar, Songs from the Chinese, is a strange call to ignore the cares of the world - an admonition to keep one's head down, and remain detached.

The Big Chariot 

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You won't be able to see for dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You'll be stifled with dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

While I can see Britten's attraction to the poem as a warning to protect one's innocence (and therefore one's unsullied, na├»ve happiness), the admonition to not think about the "sorrows of the world" strikes me as a strange one to draw the attention of someone like Britten, who was very much aware and conscious of the sorrows of the world around him.  A staunch pacifist and deeply thoughtful man, his work centered on so many socially-conscious themes, including the plight of the societal outcast and the futility and waste of war.  When thinking about the song in that context, there's something about the choice of the poem that strikes me as strange.

Mentioning this to Eliot yesterday in rehearsal, I also noted that the song is very much like the proverbial admonition to not think about the pink elephant in the room.  Each time I've come to study and practice it, I find myself thinking of nothing BUT the sorrows of the world. Whether they be the recent horrible terrorist attacks in Paris, the beheadings by ISIS in the middle east, or even the quadruple homicide that occurred the other night, just blocks away, while I was onstage performing Les Illuminations with the San Francisco Symphony (parade sauvage, indeed...) - I find myself pondering nothing but the world's woes as I sing it.

Perhaps this is part of what drew Britten to the poem in the first place?  Perhaps it appealed to him on multiple levels? The effort to protect fragile innocence?  The futility of that effort? Or perhaps he had simply come to think it actually was good advice, the world a no less dangerous, volatile, and threatening place than any previous era in human history?  I'm not sure.

Either way, I can't stop thinking about the pink elephant in the room.

Hear Ian Bostridge and Xufei Yang perform the piece below:

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