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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Prelude and Fugue (1943)
Although Britten did not find his lessons with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music particularly stimulating, preferring instead his more informal, advisory sessions with Frank Bridge, it was Ireland who gave Britten his thorough grounding in counterpoint. Looking back on this time many years later, Britten acknowledged the great service that Ireland had done for him, commenting to Murray Perahia that a grounding in counterpoint is the most useful training a composer could have: ‘That’s what makes harmony; if you think of harmony as an entity in itself, it becomes too structural and you are not aware of the voices interrelating.’ Bach and Palestrina were the main subjects of these lessons in counterpoint, but although Britten knew the tuition to be useful, he wrote to his parents about ‘plodding through’ the exercises, complaining that they were ‘jolly hard to write’. Britten preferred the music of Beethoven, someone with whom he felt a sense of kindred spirit, and in his early days at the RCM he had also just discovered the music of Mahler. In 1939 he wrote to fellow composer Lennox Berkeley: ‘Since my discovery of Mahler I haven’t been so excited over anything... I think he’s so much better than Bach!!!’
But many of Britten’s obsessions were passing phases, and by 1949 he had grown tired of Beethoven’s music, considering it ‘so obvious’. Meanwhile, his passion for the music of the Baroque had grown and although Purcell became a towering figure for Britten over the course of his lifetime, his admiration for Bach also grew. In the 1960s, Britten would write his three cello suites in homage to Bach, following an agreement with Mstislav Rostropovich, hastily scribbled on the back of a napkin (the original agreement was for six suites, by way of a matching set to Bach’s, but Britten was keen not to be dogged by Bach’s shadow). His Prelude and Fugue of 1943 also unambiguously declares its homage to Bach in the title. Written to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Boyd Neel Orchestra and lasting around eight and a half minutes, its formal concentration and classical balance combine effortlessly with a virtuosic exploration of the medium. Unlike Bach’s examples, the Prelude here acts as a framing device that returns with its material in reverse at the end. The two-part counterpoint of solo violin against orchestral octave doublings here starkly contrasts to what ensues in the Fugue, where Britten builds the texture from a single line to an impressive, sonorous 18-part texture. Where it is formally radical, however, it is harmonically simple, relying almost entirely upon triadic harmony and with the fugal theme alternating traditional falling steps and rising fourths. It is Britten’s unique treatment of rhythm and orchestral colour that transforms the work from the simple revival of an antiquated procedure to a thoroughly modern rendering of a pre-existent template.
© Jo Kirkbride