We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)
Richard Taruskin
To Serve By Challenging

ex. 5-12 Benjamin Britten, Death in Venice, gamelan stylization in Tadzio music

This is an achievement that the adoption of an alienated “avant-garde” stance, and a difficult musical style more typical of midcentury modernists, might well have thwarted. That was the real tension for Britten, in many personally crucial ways genuinely alienated from contemporary society, yet, as he put it, “longing to be used”41 by that very society, seeing his most useful potential role as that of a faithful and acceptable gadfly who could, by pleasing his audience with satisfying art experiences, lobby for points of view that challenged, and sought to undermine, the complacency of the majority.

The quoted phrase in the foregoing paragraph comes from a speech Britten delivered in 1964, entitled “On Receiving the First Aspen Award.” This was a sizable cash prize authorized in 1963 by the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, an organization founded by Walter Paepcke (1896–1960), a wealthy Chicago industrialist and philanthropist, whose monetary investment turned Aspen, a former silver-mining boom town in Colorado, into a combined ski resort and summer cultural center. The Aspen Award was instituted to honor “the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities.”42 Britten received the award in particular recognition of his War Requiem, op. 66, a huge oratorio for three vocal soloists, mixed chorus, boys’ chorus, chamber orchestra, symphony orchestra, and organ, commissioned for the dedication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed out during the Second World War, and first performed in the cathedral as part of its consecration ceremony on 30 May 1962. Like so many of Britten's works, the War Requiem had ironic juxtaposition at its conceptual core. This time the Latin words of the traditional Requiem Mass, sung by the soprano soloist and the choruses with the large orchestra and organ, were juxtaposed with grim, posthumously published antiwar verses by Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), a pacifist poet killed in action a week before the armistice that ended World War I, sung by the tenor and baritone soloists, personifying soldiers, accompanied by the chamber orchestra.

The inclusion of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a German baritone, in the original performing roster at Britten's express behest turned the occasion into one of symbolic reconciliation between former enemies. It gave enormous added poignancy to the last of Owen's poems, performed in juxtaposition with Libera me, Domine (“Deliver me, O Lord”), the final portion of the Requiem liturgy. The poem consists of a meditation on war's waste of life in the form of a dialogue between a killed British soldier and a German whom he had previously killed. In the first performance, and in the recording made the next year under Britten's baton, those roles were taken by Pears and Fischer-Dieskau.

The soprano soloist in the recording was the Soviet singer Galina Vishnevskaya, whose participation balanced that of Fischer-Dieskau as a reminder of the former wartime alliance between the hostile camps of the cold war. The work was received in England, along with the ceremony it accompanied, as a major historical event; it gave Britten, at least for a time, the sort of heroic and official public prominence otherwise enjoyed by modern creative artists only in the Soviet bloc (and only when they behaved). For the moment, it seemed, his formerly suspect pacifism was in harmony with the aspirations of his country, and this concord was reflected in the citation he was given at Aspen, which lauded him as “a brilliant composer, performer, and interpreter through music of human feelings, moods, and thoughts, [who] has truly inspired man to understand, clarify and appreciate more fully his own nature, purpose and destiny.”43

Britten used this moment of triumph to deliver a sermon at Aspen about the social responsibility of artists, and the responsibilities of society toward its artists. It can be read as a sustained metaphor for the conflict he had always faced between his condition and his aspirations, the risks he felt he had taken in life and in his art, and his satisfaction in having come through. “I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives’ (to use [the art critic Bernard] Berenson's phrase),”44 he said near the end of his address, and followed this up by taking an explicit and very emphatic stand regarding the crux (“History or Society?”) that informs this chapter and the next:

I do not write for posterity—in any case, the outlook for that is somewhat uncertain. I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots in where I live and work.45

This theme was Britten's mantra. Earlier in the talk he had already insisted, repetitiously and seemingly gratuitously, that it was after all “quite a good thing to please people, even if only for today. That is what we should aim at—pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself.”46 Earlier still he had indicated why such a seemingly amiable, unobjectionable position had nevertheless to be advanced militantly:

There are many dangers which hedge round the unfortunate composer: pressure groups which demand true proletarian music, snobs who demand the latest avant-garde tricks; critics who are already trying to document to day for tomorrow, to be the first to find the correct pigeon-hole definition. These people are dangerous—not because they are necessarily of any importance in themselves, but because they may make the composer, above all the young composer, self-conscious, and instead of writing his own music, music which springs naturally from his gift and personality, he may be frightened into writing pretentious nonsense or deliberate obscurity.47

To those who saw themselves as living only in history, who treated their social peers as a hindrance, and who therefore continued to invest their art with an outdated aristocratic (or “high-culture”) aura of inaccessibility, Britten offered a prim pointer on manners: “it is insulting to address anyone in a language which they do not understand.”48 But pieties were balanced with warnings. “Finding one's place in society as a composer is not a straightforward job,” he asserted, leaving a great deal unsaid, especially when he hinted that “until such a condition is changed, musicians will continue to feel ‘out of step.’”49 Matters are not helped, he went on, “by the attitude towards the composer in some societies.” First he indicted his own, “semi-Socialist Britain, and Conservative Britain before it,” which “has for years treated the musician as a curiosity to be barely tolerated.” But even greater dangers lurk to the left and right, he told his American audience:

In totalitarian regimes, we know that great official pressure is used to bring the artist into line and make him conform to the State's ideology. In the richer capitalist countries, money and snobbishness combine to demand the latest, newest manifestations, which I am told go by the name in this country of “Foundation Music.”50

Britten picked only three composers to praise by name, knowing that the praise would be provocative:

Recently, we have had the example of Shostakovich, who set out in his “Leningrad” Symphony to present a monument to his fellow citizens, an explicit expression for them of their own endurance and heroism. At a very different level, one finds composers such as Johann Strauss and George Gershwin aiming at providing people—the people—with the best dance music and songs which they were capable of making. And I can find nothing wrong with the objectives—declared or implicit—of these men; nothing wrong with offering to my fellow-men music which may inspire them or comfort them, which may touch them or entertain them, even educate them—directly and with intention. On the contrary, it is the composer's duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings.51

As history, even as social history, not everything (perhaps not much) in this paragraph holds water, and Britten may have known that. But he was engaging in a not-so-covert polemic against the other side of the mid-twentieth-century divide. And he was met with rejoinders in kind.


(41) Britten, On Receiving the First Aspen Award, p. 21.

(42) Ibid. p. 7.

(43) Ibid.

(44) Ibid. pp. 21–22.

(45) Ibid. p. 22.

(46) Ibid. p. 17.

(47) Ibid. p. 14.

(48) Ibid. p. 12.

(49) Ibid. p. 14.

(50) Ibid. p. 15.

(51) Ibid. p. 12.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005008.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 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005008.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 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005008.xml