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Benjamin Britten: Third String Quartet

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Rogan Bogaert

on 8 April 2013

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Transcript of Benjamin Britten: Third String Quartet

Benjamin Britten's Third String Quartet:
Death in Venice, Sexuality, and Late Style Biography Born Nov. 22nd, 1913 in Lowestoft, England

Educated at Gresham College and RCM

Composer, Pianist, and Conductor

Concientious Objector during WWII

'Peter Grimes' became his first large success

Best known for his operas and choral works String Quartet No. 3 (1975) Died in the arms of Peter Pears on December 4, 1976 Late Style Defined within the Broader Discourse I Questions:

How is Britten's late style different from Beethoven's?

Do Adorno and Dahlhaus' understanding of late style apply to Britten?

What exactly is Britten's late style? Late Style Defined within the Broader Discourse II Factors to Consider:

Illness forced an early "aging"
No "break" as continuation is not really possible for a twentieth-century composer First string quartet he had written in 30 years

Written in a Grade-II listed potting shed at Chapel House in Horham, Suffolk

Recitative introduction to the passacaglia finale written on Britten's last tip to Venice in November 1975

Written for the Amadeus Quartet and dedicated to Hans Kellers

Britten heard run-through on Sept. 28, 1976

Premiered at the Snape Maltings on December 19, 1976 Late Style Defined within the Broader Discourse III Peter Evens concludes that "the simplicity of it's language and the serenity to which it aspires represent a distillation, not a dilution, of Britten’s expressivity during this most poignant period of his life." Peter Evens, The Music of Benjamin Britten (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 348. Discussions Questions: Is it really that different from Beethoven?

Is self-quotation as significant outside of late style?

How is the notion of self-quotation changed in the twentieth century?

How might the theme of sexuality change with age? String Quartet No. 3 Continued I. Duets
II. Ostinato
III. Solo
IV. Burlesque
V. Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima) Pre-classical models

Plan and titles derived from cello suites

Britten marked the motifs from Death in Venice in the score

Only 26 minutes long Movements Features V. Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima) Recitative quotes passages (marked in the score) from Britten's opera 'Death in Venice'; adapted from the eponymous Thomas Mann novel. Passacaglia is in E major, a key important to the opera If it's not Beethovenian late style, and it's not Strauss' disabled late style, then what is it? Longest movement in the quartet Britten and Late Style Last Few Years Cardiac deterioration in August 1972

Finished Death in Venice in Spring of 1973

Went to hospital April 6, 1973 and underwent heart valve surgery on May 7, 1973

Suffered a stroke that affected his right hand

Did not attend 60th birthday in November 1973

Stopped writing letters to Pears in 1974 Britten and Sexuality Research Questions:

How does this actually inform our
understanding of the work?

Is it simply discussed as part of the New Musicology?

Would we care if Britten was straight? Late Style Shorter works

Preoccupation with mortality; specifically focused on the theme of mortality from a young person's point of view

Imaginative structural features

Irregular use of form

Self-quotation, Passsacaglia, and Sexuality Late Works I Creative hiatus of a year after stroke

Worked on unpublished works and rearranged earlier works

Could no longer compose at the piano, so he composed at the harp

Continued to compose until November 1976 Late Works II Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus (1974) Poem by T.S. Eliot
Written for Peter Pears and harpist Osian Ellis Phaedra (1975) Cantata
Written for Janet Baker Welcome Ode (1976) Written for the Queen Mother's visit to Ipswich
Designed for 'young people's chorus and orchestra' Britten and Sexuality II Philip Brett and The New Musicology Britten, Passacaglia and Late Style Britten used passacaglia quite often: Peter Grimes, Cello Symphony, String Quartet No. 2, Rape of Lucretia, Serenade

Passacaglia is both cyclical (melodically) and teleological (harmonically)

Passacaglia/Chaconne are often found at the end of works

Britten ends the quartet ambiguously with a D-natural in the bass Passacaglia and Ambiguity in String Quartet No. 3 Colin Matthews says that Britten wanted to "end with a question."

Evans comments that "in the serene unfolding of Britten's last ground-bass movement, we can surely hear, as in the passacaglias of Lucretia and Herring, a threnody, but now it is as much for the composer as for his hero."

D-natural might be seen as a nostalgic nod to C major. Research Questions 1. How does Britten’s use of Death in Venice affect our understanding of the Third String Quartet?

2. What is Britten’s late style? Conclusions 1. How does Britten’s use of Death in Venice affect our understanding of the Third String Quartet?

• Gives more meaning to the tonal centers used in the work

• For better or for worse, puts emphasis on the fifth movement

• Creates a more personal work

•Enables many different semiotic interpretations of the text (music) Conclusions 2. What is Britten’s late style?

• Intensely personal

• Highly expressive

• Distillation of Britten’s personal style Most shout the names they think are fine.
But I daren’t mutter the name of mine—
—Benjamin Britten
(from letter to W. H. Auden, June 5th. 1939) Britten and Sexuality III “For Ben, the opera was, in some sort of way, a summing-up of what he felt, inspired even by the memories of his own idyllic childhood…At the end, Aschendbach asks what it is he has spent his life searching for. Knowledge? A lost innocence? And must the pursuit of beauty, of love, lead only to chaos? All questions Ben constantly asked himself.”
(Pears, in the 1980 film “A Time there Was”) Britten and Sexuality VI Does this type of study inform us of more of Britten's biography than of the piece itself?

As this is information we only acquire through knowledge of Britten's biography, what does it really mean for our understanding of the music? "In the opera, Aschenbach’s Platonic adoration of Tadzio is represented by A major, while his subversive impulses towards sexual love are symbolized by E major. The affinity between these two tonal areas is underlined by the dissonance A-G# - the latter being both the major third in E and the leading note in A."
(Sara Ruth Longobardi, 2005) Britten and Sexuality IV These key relations return in the String Quartet in relation to the "I Love You" gesture Reception "Whether we hear this as new light on Aschenbach's fate or, still more poignantly, as comment on the composer's own, we shall find a rare aptness in the powerful upsurge of the creative imagination which shaped the quartet's closing passionate sigh" Peter Evans (1979) Legacy Founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948
Awarded life time peerage in 1976
Britten-Pears Foundation
Britten100.org Britten and Sexuality V But instead of the expected E major ending, Britten gives us something far more enigmatic (Ex.3). Compare this with the moment of Aschenbach's death from the very end of Death in Venice. The harmony in each case points to A major, by means of a leading-note pedal in the opera and a lingering subdominant D in the quartet (in the opera A is achieved in the last bar). The implication of the two passages is the same: the moment of death, at the same time accepted and profoundly (though not anxiously) questioned, is also a momentary glimpse of the unattainable...

David Matthews (1978)
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