Benjamin Britten and Russia.
Cameron Pyke notes in the preface to Benjamin Britten and Russia that he was born on the day Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears arrived in Moscow during their last visit to Russia in 1971. Nine years later, Britten's Te Deum in C Major was the first piece Pyke sang as a choirboy. Britten's music ran "as something of a thread" (p. x) through Pyke's school days long before he connected Britten's love of Russian music with his own. This "cultural 'Russophilia' " (p. xi) of both author and subject forms the heart of the present volume. In it, Pyke examines the origins and development of Britten's interest in Russia over more than fifty years, from Britten's first documented acquisition of a Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky score in 1925, to Praise We Great Men, a piece left incomplete at the time of Britten's death that he intended for Mstislav Rostropovich to conduct in exile in America.
Various aspects of Britten's interest in Russia--in particular his friendships with Rostropovich, Dmitrii Shostakovich, and Galina Vishnevskafa--have been the subjects of previous research. Although Pyke notes the pioneering work of Donald Mitchell, Eric Roseberry, and Liudmila KovnaGkaia in this area, he nevertheless argues that the full scope of Britten's engagement with Russian culture has escaped scholarly attention until now. To redress this imbalance, Pyke explores not only Britten's relationships to Shostakovich, Rostropovich, and Vishnevskafa, but also to Tchaikovsky, Sergey Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky as well as Britten's initial contacts with Russian music as a young man, the trips Britten and Pears made to Russia between 1963 and 1971, the impact of Russian performance practice, and the reception of Britten's music within the political context of the Soviet Union. The book is organized largely by composer relationships, with chapters for Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Two chapters delve into Britten's relationship with Shostakovich, while discussions of Britten's Russian trips and performance practice considerations each receive their own chapters.
The title of the first chapter, "Earliest and Lifelong Russophilia," illustrates Pyke's main point: Britten's engagement with Russian culture began in his boyhood and remained consistent throughout his life, though with varying focus at different times. Pyke describes Britten's adolescent experiences of Russian opera and ballet as an "afterglow" (p. 6) of British enthusiasm for nineteenth-century Russian culture before World War I. In the 1930s, as the British musical establishment embraced the classicizing tendencies of Jean Sibelius, Pyke reads Britten's enthusiasm for Russian music, particularly Tchaikovsky, as a "conscious reaction" and "a reassertion" of the pre-World War I "musical Russophilia which cast a lingering shadow over [Britten's] childhood and adolescence" (p. 7). Britten thus saw Russian music as an exotic "Other," attractive but distant enough to remain a "non-threatening" influence (p. 7). Pyke reiterates this idea throughout the course of his argument.
Both chapters 2 and 7 consider Britten's friendship with Shostakovich. Pyke divides his discussion into two halves demarcated by Britten's first trip to Russia; chapter 2 covers 1934-1963, and chapter 7 covers 1963-1976. In the context of Britten's lifelong interest in Russia, chapter 2 stands out. To Pyke, Britten's early interest in Shostakovich was based on selective musical appeal reinforced by the extra-musical factor of Shostakovich's perceived "Russianness" (p. 83). Shostakovich's influence through works such as I.edi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) therefore affirmed preexisting tendencies in Britten's musical language--innovative scoring for percussion and a taste for satire, for example--rather than creating new tendencies. In contrast to Britten's acceptance of the music of Tchaikovsky, Pyke notes that Britten's view of Shostakovich in the 1930s was "complex and fluid" (p. 82). By the 1960s, Britten's interest in Shostakovich focused on a wider range of music and extra-musical influences: their parallel status as preeminent composers in their respective nations, empathy for Shostakovich's uneasy relationship with the Soviet political establishment, a shared interest in chamber music, and the willingness to communicate private sentiments in a "public" work while eschewing avant garde serialism. According to Pyke, Shostakovich's "Russianness" was no longer a controlling factor.
Chapter 3 highlights Prokofiev. Pyke argues that Prokofiev's influence on Britten was "elusive;" while stylistically the two composers sometimes shared highly recognizable approaches to melodic lines or instrumental sonorities, these are "largely coincidental affinities" between two "highly distinctive creative personalities" (p. 84). Pyke sees Prokofiev's influence as an affirmation of Britten's bent towards parody, particularly grotesquerie, though this diminished in Britten's output in the 1950s, only returning full-force in late works such as Who are these Children? (1969), the Third Cello Suite (1971), Sacred and Profane (1975), and the "Burlesque" movement of the Third String Quartet (1975). Pyke nevertheless offers musical examples of specific influence from Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto on Britten's Suite for violin and piano, op. 6, and Violin Concerto, and from Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto on Britten's Piano Concerto.
Chapter 4 follows Britten's "unpredictable and ambiguous" (p. 120) relationship with Stravinsky. Pyke focuses on the musical and personal rift between the two composers. He concludes that until World War II Stravinsky represented for Britten the "living embodiment of the progressive pre-1914 Russian cultural tradition" (p. 121). Britten saw Stravinsky's neoclassical works as a counter to the perceived provincialism of British composers such as Arnold Bax and Ralph Vaughan Williams. After 1949, Britten and Stravinsky parted ways over stylistic matters as well as personal insecurity and professional jealousy. Pyke assesses Britten's friendship with Shostakovich in light of both composers' uneasy relationships with Stravinsky. By the end of Britten's life, Pyke argues, the "Stravinsky-Shostakovich disparity" evident in Britten's diaries from the 1930s was "dramatically reversed" (p. 141), with Britten and Shostakovich playing mutually supportive roles that were no longer possible with Stravinsky.
Chapter 5 charts the six trips to the Soviet Union made by Britten and Pears between 1963 and 1971. Here Pyke delves into the international political considerations inherent in such travel, as well as the pivotal roles played by Rostropovich and Vishnevskaia. Pyke aims to give a "more complex political reading" (p. 142) of these journeys from both the British and Soviet sides than they have previously received. He discusses the political "thaw" made possible by Stalin's death, the shifting diplomatic currents between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, as well as the nuanced political decisions made by all parties to Britten's trips--including Britten himself--while affirming the underlying personal nature of Britten's Russian friendships.
Chapter 6 returns to music, concentrating on Britten's only Russian-language vocal setting, Ekho poeta (The Poet's Echo, 1965). Even here, however, Pyke explores the political dimensions of Britten's artistic choices: the "profound statement of Anglo-Russian friendship" (p. 189) made in setting poems by Aleksandr Pushkin and the endorsement of Soviet artistic policy implied by Britten's completing the work at a Soviet "composers' colony" (p. 189). The chapter ends with a discussion of Russian performance practices in Britten's music by conductors and performers, including Gennadii Rozhdestvenskil, Sviatoslav Richter, Rostropovich and Vishnevskafa. Britten's responses varied; at times he was enthusiastic, at other times he was rebuffed by particular interpretive decisions. Pyke concludes with a brief but dense chapter summing up the complexities of Britten's multifaceted "Russophilia," from received cultural traditions, to personal friendships, to Cold War-era international relations.
To document the breadth and depth of topics addressed in this monograph, Pyke draws upon the full text of Britten's diaries from 1928-1938, Britten's collection of miniature and full scores of Russian music, correspondence in the Britten-Pears Foundation Archive and Library, National Archives material relating to the Foreign Office and British Council, a series of articles published about Britten in the Soviet Union between 1963-1973, and interviews with those who worked with or were close to Britten and/or Shostakovich, many of which are included as appendices. Pyke also refers to much contemporary Britten scholarship, particularly those publications that appeared for Britten's birth centenary in 2013. This extensive documentation is one of the book's strengths. Pyke is skillful in weaving this abundance of information into the body of the text without slowing the pace of his writing. Only the number of footnotes on each page gives a clue to the careful integration of sources.
Another strength is Pyke's ease in switching from the general to the particular. Thus, each chapter covers not only the wide-ranging topics of musical influence and the philosophical, political, or personal identification of Britten with a particular Russian composer or aspect of Russian culture, but also includes concrete musical examples drawn from relevant compositions by Britten. The musical examples in the text are clear and often lengthy, some extending over two or more pages.
Pyke delivers on his promise to bring together the different strands of Britten's lifelong engagement with Russia. While not the last word on the subject, Pyke's wide-ranging exploration touches on broad political trends as well as specific compositional details, successfully placing Britten's "Russophilia" in historical context. Pykes also foregrounds the personal uncertainties and political ambiguities present even in the close friendships between Britten, Rostropovich, and Vishnevskaifa as well as Britten's relationships with Russian composers living and dead. One minor factual error: Pyke gives the total number of Britten's trips to the Soviet Union as six in the preface but as five at the opening of chapter five. Nevertheless, Benjamin Britten and Russia is a worthy eleventh entry in the Aldeburgh Studies in Music series under the general editorship of Christopher Grogan. Scholars, performers, and interested laypersons will find it an engaging, informative, and well-documented resource.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2017|
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