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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)
Richard Taruskin

Between 1941 and 1973, Britten produced a total of seventeen works for the lyric stage. He established his reputation right after the war with Peter Grimes (op. 33), an opera set in Aldeburgh, an English fishing village near the composer's own home. It was first performed on 7 June 1945 by the Sadler's Wells company (now the English National Opera), London's smaller, less prestigious operatic stage, and almost immediately went around the world in a manner reminiscent of the operatic hits of the 1920s. Within three years it had played at London's Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, New York's Metropolitan, Milan's La Scala, and sixteen other locations in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the United States.

His time freed by Peter Grimes’s commercial success, Britten began turning out operas on an almost yearly basis. His next major hit, six years and five operas later, was Billy Budd (op. 50), after Herman Melville's shipboard story. In 1953 came Gloriana (op. 53), the coronation commission, a historical opera about Elizabeth I, the new queen's namesake. The Turn of the Screw, op. 54 (1954), after Henry James's ghost story, was a chamber opera (the “orchestra” consisting of thirteen solo instruments), a genre calculated for the resources, and for the encouragement, of small touring companies. The original touring company that performed it, the English Opera Group, was founded by Britten himself and his lifelong companion, the tenor Peter Pears. It was an outgrowth of his strong commitment to take his art to the people.

Britten's next opera, A Midsummer Night's Dream (op. 64) after Shakespeare, came six years later, in 1960. It was first performed at Aldeburgh, a coastal village where Britten and Pears had established a summer festival. In the interim he had written a ballet (The Prince of the Pagodas, op. 57) and Noye's Fludde (op. 59), a setting of a medieval miracle play for church performance. In the train of the latter came three “parables” or one-act church operas: Curlew River, op. 71 (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace, op. 77 (1966), and The Prodigal Son, op. 81 (1968). Britten's last two operas were Owen Wingrave, op. 85 (1970), composed for television performance, and Death in Venice, op. 88 (1973), after the famous novella by Thomas Mann.

None of the later works matched the colossal success of Peter Grimes, but at least four—Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Death in Venice—have joined Peter Grimes in the permanent international repertoire. No composer in the postwar period has come close to matching that record. Two other composers have managed to produce international repertory operas: Stravinsky with The Rake's Progress (1951) and Poulenc with Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956). Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All (1947), an opera about Susan B. Anthony, has received many performances in America (partly because of its suitability for conservatory and workshop productions) but has never traveled.

Britten's only possible rival as an opera specialist was Gian Carlo Menotti (1911 –2007), an Italian-born composer long resident in the United States, who was even more prolific than Britten in the genre, with twenty-five operas to his credit by 1993, most of them written to his own librettos. Menotti's was a strangely lopsided career, however, with amazing early successes followed by near oblivion. His first stage piece, an opera buffa called Amelia al ballo (1936; most often performed in English translation as Amelia Goes to the Ball), was so well received that the Metropolitan Opera accepted it for production in 1938. It brought on a steady stream of commissions, many from broadcast media.

The first of Menotti's truly amazing successes was The Medium (1945), a melodramatic chamber opera in two acts with a cast of five singers and a mime, and an accompanying orchestra of fourteen pieces. It was first performed in 1946 at Columbia University's Brander Matthews Theater, which a few years earlier had been the site of Britten's first operatic endeavor (an unsuccessful folk opera or operetta called Paul Bunyan, to a libretto by the poet W. H. Auden, then like Britten a British immigrant to the United States), and was very likely a precedent or model for Britten's Turn of the Screw. Together with a comic curtain raiser called The Telephone, The Medium was produced on Broadway during the 1947–48 season, and enjoyed a run of 211 performances. Menotti himself directed a Hollywood film adaptation of The Medium in 1951, and the United States government sent the double bill on a European tour in 1955.

His next opera, a full-evening “musical drama” in verismo style called The Consul (1949), was a cold-war saga about the desperate efforts, culminating in suicide, of a would-be emigrant to obtain an exit visa from an unnamed European police state. It, too, had a successful Broadway run, and won both the Drama Critic's Circle Award for the season's best play and the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1950. The next year, Menotti received a commission from NBC television for a Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, a story of the Three Magi and a miraculous healing. Televised annually for a dozen years and frequently performed by amateur groups and workshops, it may well be the most widely seen opera of all time. Menotti's next opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954), about an alleged miracle worker in New York's “Little Italy” district, once again played Broadway, receiving Critics’ Circle Awards both as best opera and as best play, and another Pulitzer Prize.

These operas, especially The Medium and The Consul, are still revived in major houses and can be called repertory items, at least in America. But Menotti would never have another major operatic success, though his career lasted another four decades. His last production on a major world stage was The Last Savage, a satire of modern life (including twelve-tone music), which failed miserably at the Metropolitan Opera in 1964. His thirteenth opera, a work for children (“and people who like children”) called Help, Help, the Globolinks! (1968), about an invasion from outer space (with electronic music to represent the aliens), was the last to be published. His later premieres have been at provincial venues, most frequently the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The Wedding (1988) was introduced in Seoul, Korea. In his later years, Menotti was more active as a stage director and impresario (directing the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto, Italy, and Charleston, South Carolina) than as a creative figure. His most recent premieres took place under his own auspices.

The reasons for Menotti's apparent failure to stem the ebbing tide for opera while Britten continued to flourish may have had something to do with musical style and invention. Menotti's scores, reminiscent of Puccini both in their melodic and harmonic idiom and in their formal procedures, stopped attracting critical interest while Britten's, continually surprising, commanded the respect of critics otherwise committed to modernism (which Menotti actively resisted and despised). It may be, too, that measuring Menotti's success by the standards of his early Broadway runs is unfair; no other composer of continuously-sung opera ever duplicated that kind of success, either. Critical success and audience success are by no means dependably in alignment.

But the ephemeral success of the one composer and the continually burgeoning success of the other (Billy Budd, for example, becoming a repertoire opera only after an initial flop that led to revisions, like some famous works of Verdi and Puccini), suggests that Menotti's works, while explosively effective on first exposure, exhausted their meaning quickly, while Britten's embodied latent meanings that revealed themselves (or that emerged into the light of critical discourse) only over time, engaging performers, audiences, and critics in continual dialogue. That is what makes for a long cultural shelf life, the kind that characterizes and constitutes “classics.”

It is that process of emergence that will occupy our attention here, for that is where Britten's historical significance seems to lie. Only in this way can we hope to explain Britten's by now universally recognized stature as a major definer of the contemporary music of his day, and his endurance, despite his refusal to embrace the narrowly stylistic definition of musical contemporaneity that reigned in avant-garde circles at midcentury.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Standoff (I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005003.xml