Benjamin Britten

by Azary Messerer

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Azary Messerer remembers meeting Benjamin Britten in USSR

In the evening of a short winter day in 1964, I nervously entered a hotel room on the 12th floor of the Hotel Ukraine to interview the composer Benjamin Britten. The only light in the room came from a desk lamp illuminating the hands of the composer, who was writing something. He politely asked me to wait a few minutes, and when he had finished writing, he turned to me and said, “I have to write so many postcards from Moscow – to everyone in the children’s choir that performed at the last Aldeburgh Festival.”

Azary Messerer with Benjamin Britten, Moscow 1964

This was to be my first and only interview with Britten. But I had more than a passing acquaintance with his work. Two years earlier in 1962 I had even played an accidental role in the celebration of his 50th birthday. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, a friend and neighbour of mine in Moscow, had been asked to submit an article to a journal being published in England to celebrate Britten’s 50th birthday.

Slava, as we called him, was run off his feet as usual, and remembered about the article only when informed it was the only thing missing from the publication, which was going to print in two days’ time. He and I lived on the same floor of the composer’s cooperative building, and late one evening he brought me a handwritten article of formidable length – the manuscript of which I still possess – and asked me to translate it into English… in one day. I got to work immediately, but soon realised the task was simply beyond me.

The next morning, when I arrived at the radio station where I worked in the English department, I rushed straight to the desk of Bernie Cooper, a brilliant translator who had spent his childhood in America and was the only person in Moscow who could translate Slava’s article at such impossible speed. Cooper was up to his ears in work but, fortunately, happened to be a fan of Rostropovich, so eventually caved in.

The next day after work, I happily brought Slava the translation, certain that Cooper would have been able to convey all the humour and warmth of the original. In almost every line, Rostropovich swore his undying love to the music and person of Benjamin Britten – or, as he affectionately called him, Benny.

“The great and noble humanistic nature of Britten is evident in any manifestation of his musical genius. The works of Britten are his self-portrait. Britten the pianist is very similar to Britten the composer, and Britten the conductor, much like Britten the pianist, compels any music under his hands to penetrate directly into the soul of the listener. Music that has passed through Britten’s mind becomes somehow purified and emerges in its own pristine beauty.” And so, two years later, Slava returned the favour by giving me the enviable job of translating for Britten when he came to Moscow.

When we met Britten at the Moscow airport, he naturally assumed I was the translator of Rostropovich’s article. He frowned at me and pronounced one fatal word, which I didn’t dare translate to Slava: “awful.” I blushed and was utterly crestfallen. Only later, when I read the diaries of Britten, did I realise what a connoisseur of the English language he was, having set to music some of the finest works of English literature, from John Donne to Henry James. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that even the mighty Bernie Cooper could not meet Britten’s approval. Nevertheless, Britten took pity on me, especially when he saw that I was a friend of Slava’s, and generously agreed to let me interview him – something he rarely allowed.


Azary with Slava Rostropovich, 2002

And so it was, on that evening in March I ended up alone with Britten in his hotel room. My gaze immediately fell on a book on his desk beside the pile of postcards; it was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Noting my interest, Britten told me he reads the novel at least once a year in order to judge how his outlook has changed since childhood – to see whether he’s grown up, or even grown old. It seemed to me then that by corresponding with his young friends from the children’s choir, he was trying to understand them by reading the books they might read. Perhaps no other composer has had such insight into child psychology and the intonations of children’s language as Britten.

His opera The Turn of the Screw, in which two of the main roles are sung by children, convinced me of this. It was then being performed in Moscow by the English Opera Group. I was not alone in being deeply moved by this music and this production. In the article he had written, Slava remarked on the profound impression The Turn of the Screw had made on Shostakovich at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962. “All evening, Dmitri Dmitriyevich was in raptures about the opera. He was an ardent admirer of Britten’s talent, and regarded the Cello Sonata as one of the finest in the repertoire.”

Rostropovich was in fact the dedicatee of that very sonata, having become a close friend of Britten’s while staying at the Red House, the composer’s home in Aldeburgh, during the Aldeburgh Festival. Britten had spent much of the late 1940s carting his new works around the festivals of Germany, Switzerland and France. Apparently, during one of the more exhausting tours, Britten’s life partner, tenor Peter Pears, exclaimed, “Why shouldn’t we start our own festival in Aldeburgh?”

Founded in 1948, the Aldeburgh Festival eventually became so popular that a new concert hall was built to accommodate the growing crowds, and was opened by Queen Elizabeth herself in 1967. Soon after, Britten was named Baron of Aldeburgh. At the time of my interview, though, which was published in Soviet Culture on March 26, 1964, he was simply Mr Britten. But he was effusive in expressing his attachment to the town and its environs.

“I truly love Aldeburgh,” he told me. “I know of no more picturesque corner of England. Every day I go for walks and marvel at the beauty of the Gothic churches and fishing villages. Our greatest painters, Constable and Gainsborough, were born and worked here, as well as my favourite poet, Crabbe. Most of my compositions were first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival, and we’re planning to perform my new opera Curlew River in Aldeburgh Cathedral. Rostropovich and I will also perform my Cello Concerto there.”

The world premiere of this concerto, which I attended, took place a few days later in Moscow at the Great Hall of the Conservatorium. The public gave such a long and enthusiastic standing ovation that Britten and Rostropovich had no choice but to repeat the final movement.

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Benjamin Britten, Moscow 1964

            Britten loved the acoustics of the Great Hall, but thought the greatest acoustic of all was that of the Gothic cathedral, especially if the polyphony of the work was written with that resonance in mind. When he wrote music, he told me, he imagined not only the hall in which it would be played, but also the musicians who would play it. In answer to critics who complained his music is “too accessible”, he replied, “There is nothing wrong with a composer who tries to write music that inspires people, touches them, calms them, entertains them, or even teaches them something.”

            This desire to use music to redeem the world culminated in his War Requiem, written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been devastated by bombings during World War II. As an epigraph to the Requiem, Britten used the lines:

            “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity… All a poet can do today is warn.”

            These words belong to the English poet Wilfred Owen, Britten told me in the interview. “His poetry is full of passionate hatred of war and of violence. That same hatred resounds in the music of Shostakovich and in the works of the world’s great artists. The humanism of these works has made them the heritage of people of all nations. I was very happy that the first recording of my Requiem was made by outstanding artists from around the world: Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Surely this kind of collaboration brings us all closer together.”

            To each of his Russian friends, Britten would go on to dedicate an outstanding piece of music. For Vishnevskaya, a soprano and wife of Rostropovich, he wrote a song cycle set to poems by Pushkin, the idea of which emerged when Britten was holidaying with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya in Armenia. The piece was premiered at the Pushkin Museum in Mikhailovskoye, where the poet was born in 1799 and spent much of his life. The last song bears the title Lines Written on a Sleepless Night, and the piano accompaniment clearly depicts the chiming of clocks. In his Travel Diaries, Peter Pears recounts how the concert was performed by candlelight in the museum. When the last words were sung, an antique clock in the museum, preserved from the time of Pushkin suddenly beat out the 12 strokes of midnight. Everyone in the hall fell silent, entranced by the experience. At was then that Britten thought of a title for the whole cycle: The Poet’s Echo.

Benjamin Britten with Galina Vishnevskaja

            Through his personal friendship with Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who all shared Britten’s pacifist convictions, the composer became a welcome guest in the Soviet Union and, to a certain extent, even a symbol of the Khruschev thaw – that brief period of liberality after the death of Stalin. This warmth in Anglo-Soviet cultural relations reached a zenith when the Bolshoi Theatre commissioned Britten to write an opera based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with Galina Vishnevskaya performing the title role. The libretto was assigned to Colin Graham, who went on to direct Britten’s last operas. In 1968, a draft of the libretto was ready and rehearsals were being planned. On August 20, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and, as a sign of protest, Britten broke the contract and refused to travel to the USSR.

At the Kremlin, 1964

Vishnevskaya, Britten, Rostropovich, Countess of Harewood, Pears

            His Russian friends, however, continued to visit him in Aldeburgh. In 1972, Shostakovich spent a day in the Red House, presenting Britten with the Symphony No 14, dedicated to him. The idea of the symphony, based on four poems about death by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Küchelbecker, was strongly influenced by Britten’s War Requiem. Britten could not have failed to notice the lines in the poem of Küchelbecker, which could equally have referred to his friendship with Shostakovich.

“Our union will never die,

Free, happy and proud,

Strong through joy and sadness

            The union of those beloved of the muses.” Overwhelmed with gratitude, Britten made an exception to his rule never to show anyone his unfinished work. He gave Shostakovich the score of a new opera, still far from completion. Shostakovich studied the score for two hours while Britten waited anxiously in the next room. When the Russian composer eventually emerged, the smile on his face told Britten more than any words of praise. Shostakovich was thus the first person to experience Death in Venice, Britten’s last opera, the idea of which forms a poignant artistic finale to his work in the genre.

The plot of Thomas Mann’s novel was very close to Britten’s heart: a writer leaves his bourgeois family in Vienna in the hope of finding inspiration in Venice. While he aims to attain a higher Apollonian purity in his art, instead, he is visited by a very earthly, Dionysian love. Despite warnings of a cholera epidemic, the hero refuses to leave Venice and, day after day, pursues a young man, a symbol of beauty, without ever daring to strike up a conversation. Alone and ill, he dies on the beach, gazing at the waves. The last moments of the opera are imbued with the redemptive power of the ocean, a theme that runs through so many of Britten’s works, beginning with his very first opera Peter Grimes.

Letter from Rostropovich to Britten

            Britten died in 1976, outliving his friend Shostakovich by a year. Literally the day before Britten’s death, Rostropovich flew in from the United States to see his friend for the last time, and Britten presented him with the almost-completed oratorio Praise We Great Men, which Rostropovich had commissioned for his National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. At Britten’s funeral, a children’s choir sang Hymn to the Virgin, composed by Britten when he was 16. And that is how he remained in the memory of his friends – eternally young at heart, close to nature and able to inspire all those around him, and around the world, with his music.