Benjamin Britten: A Centennial Celebration

As part of the music theory class I am taking this year (Music 1122A), we had to go to one of the many concerts being held this week to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s Centennail, a British composer who lived from 1913 to 1976.  Up until now, I had never heard of this composer before, but I found his music to be quite enjoyable and different.  He tended to blend different genres of music together, like joining Baroque music (like that of Bach and Haydn) with Jazz music.  He was also a very troubled musician, constantly conflicted by his public and private selves, so his music often reflected his emotions.

Western’s Faculty of Music is celebrating Britten’s works this week by hosting many different events, both on and off campus.  If you’re interested, here’s the schedule of the performances and you can check out what his music is all about!

I went to the “Britten in Song: the Masterclass” concert at von Kuster Hall to watch as guest artist, Stephen Ralls, critiqued the performances of several Western student singers.  All the performers were excellent singers and pianists performing pieces written by Britten with lyrics written by various poets.

One of my favourite performances was by Irina Medvedeva, soprano, and Melanie Cancade, piano.  Irina sang a song called “Villes” that used French poetry for the lyrics.  It was originally composed for a string orchestra and soprano voice, however we heard the piece with only piano and voice.  An interesting thing that Irina mentioned about the poet was that he wrote all his poetry before the age of 20 and mostly while under the influence of drugs and alcohol in order to further enhance the emotions he experienced.

The poetry describes a person expressing their opinions about large cities as fascinating, yet the extravagant language used portrays the cities as exciting and bewildering in a frightening way rather than a positive way.  This emotion was captured very well by the performers in their facial expressions and by the piece itself because of its minor key and repeated staccato notes on the piano, giving a sense of urgency and excitation.  It is thought that because the poet was high on drugs, he vividly described large cities as frantic or busy in an agitated way.  Near the end of the piece, the mood changes to a slower and almost eerily-calm pace.  Stephen Ralls described this part as the person seeing through a “nightmare” of a busy city and Irina interpreted this part as the poet coming down from his drug high and finally seeing the world properly.

It was interesting to see how each person interpreted the song differently and how Irina could deliver different emotions while presenting the same lyrics.  I thought that out of all the performers, she delivered the emotion of the poetry the most effectively.

Taking a break to appreciate some music was a nice change to memorizing endless scientific facts.  It feels very refreshing to do something completely unrelated to my studies and I highly encourage everyone to go out and try something new as a study break!  Even if it’s just an hour or a half hour, it may get your brain out of a slump and prevent exhaustion from the monotony of studying!


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