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'I write music for human beings' - Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes opens the new Birmingham International Concert Season this Thursday, 26 September. The opening months of BICS 2013/14 contain a number of concerts for Britten fans, building up to the composers centenary on 22 November. Ahead of these performances, Programme Co-ordinator Hannah Baines talks about what Britten means to her…

It was a bit subliminal. Seeping in through choirs I sang with growing up and concerts I fell asleep in as a child, playing recorder in a performance of Noye’s Fludde a very long time ago when Birmingham Music Service took it on. Then there was a big gap and I had nothing really to do with him. More recently I started going to see more opera. It was an art form I had had very little to do with, but I’d just got a job with an opera company so it made sense to give it a whirl. It was a bit of an eye-opener. We saw Peter Grimes and Billy Budd in London. I heard an old record of Peter Pears singing Folksongs with Britten at the piano. And then I put on his Songs for Friday Afternoons and went to Aldburgh to see his Canticles being performed in full by Ian Bostridge. Britten once said ‘I write music for human beings’. I like him.

Britten tackles problems and spends time grappling with them. Characters and melodies are complex, perfectly suiting the complexities contained within the humans that he is writing about and for. Peter Grimes is darkly fascinating and apt for the times in which we live. He is a difficult man. Solitary and hard working, keeps himself to himself on the edge of a small-town community. Strike that man with a bad attitude and an unfortunate tragedy, and then throw in the knee-jerk reactions of some opinionated, outspoken townspeople, and you’ve got yourself a trial by media circus. Poor Peter Grimes. The more you explore the story, the more inevitable the outcome. Gossip streams through inexorably. It only takes a few well-voiced whispers. You can rouse a rabble with idle talk. He loves Ellen, who has real faith in him and desperately wants to help, but he doesn’t heed her advice. Quite the opposite. Poor, careless, unforgivable Peter Grimes. It would be best if you just ended it now wouldn’t it, Peter…..?

And then, there’s the music. Britten writes of life and love, which, being complicated, do complicate things. He never shies away from a challenge. That’s why I love Britten. From the sheer scale of the Spring Symphony, its pagan joy tumbling forth or the pacifist poignancy of the War Requiem. For me, the thing about Britten’s music is it can leap. It really leaps, but he doesn’t leave you behind. He was master of the orchestra, instruments and voice. You get big bold brass that blows the cobwebs away, only to have spidery strings weave them for you again. Sometimes conveying an emotion calls for a tangle of layered suspensions – life is complicated. He had a knack for writing music about what he loved, where he loved and who he loved. He seemed kind of fearless. That’s why I’m excited about Peter Grimes, and about all this year’s Britten. Concert performances mean there are no props or costumes hampering the performers, and the orchestra isn’t hidden in a pit! You can see the shapes of the music rolling around the stage like the turmoil or the sea they’re describing, and the singers are not hiding behind a character, they have to become it.

– Hannah Baines, Programme Co-ordinator

Peter Grimes
Thursday 26 September, 7pm
Symphony Hall
More info

Information on all upcoming Britten concerts can be foundhere