Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Britten’

A hymn to the Virgin

September 8, 2017

It’s the birthday of Our Lady. Here is Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, in a wonderful performance from King’s College, Cambridge:

Great moments in opera: Death in Venice

February 25, 2014

Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which premiered in 1973, was his last opera. It shares with most of his late music an understated and austere manner, and it deals with difficult subject matter.

Those difficulties are manifold. The opera, like Thomas Mann’s novella on which it is based, is concerned with the power of beauty over the life and work of an artist, or, more generally, with the power of eros in human life, where eros is to be understood in its widest connotation: as a longing directed toward the good, true, and beautiful. In his great book on love, Josef Pieper reminds us that in our tradition of moral and aesthetic reflection eros has been revered for its power to shake us out of complacency, to bring us face to face with the mystery and beauty of life, to call us out of ourselves. The touchstone philosophical text is Plato’s Phaedrus.

This is very much the theme of Britten’s opera, in which a renowned composer Gustav von Aschenbach (I almost wrote ‘Adrian von Leverkuhn’!) travels to Venice for refreshment and inspiration and finds himself shaken by an unexpected and overwhelming encounter with beauty. It is for him an occasion of profound spiritual awakening, calling into question his artistic vocation and his self-understanding.

And therein lies a further difficulty, for the beauty that so unnerves Aschenbach is the beauty of a young adolescent boy. Britten handles this delicate subject with kid gloves, so to speak, having Aschenbach refer to his “father’s pleasure” in the contemplation of young Tadzio, but subsequent developments suggest that this paternal stance was as much a result of Aschenbach’s failing resistance to his own feelings as anything else. It seems fairly clear that the love which springs up in Aschenbach’s heart is the fruit of eros in the wide sense, yes (and Aschenbach himself explicitly tries to interpret his own experience through the lens of the Phaedrus), but also eros in the narrower, sensual sense, and that gives the story an unsettling feeling. For these reasons, Death in Venice is a work that has about it a slightly sickening air — not wholly inappropriately, given the way the story unfolds.

And this is an important point: the story, though it flirts with pederasty, can hardly be seen as a celebration of it. The power of beauty to arouse passion is undeniable, and Aschenbach, who has lived a life of great discipline, is inspired by the luxurious backdrop of Venice, presided over by “the wanton sun”, to surrender himself to the beauty that he sees shining through Tadzio. He falls into a kind of frenzy, a loss of self-composure, in the presence of his beloved, and becomes a man of folly, even in his own eyes. It is a tailspin from which he is ultimately unable to free himself. So the opera, like the novella, presents itself as a forum for a great contest between eros and civilization, giving eloquent voice to the power of beauty over the human soul, but, in the end, sounding a warning about the dangers of surrender to it.

There are very few excerpts from this opera on YouTube; it is safe to say that never will a section of this opera appear on one of those “Greatest Hits of Opera” collections. Nonetheless, let’s hear a little of it.

We can begin at the beginning: the opera opens with a long monologue in which Aschenbach relates the personal and artistic cul-de-sac in which he finds himself, exhausted and without inspiration. Here is the opening portion of the monologue, sung by Hans Schöpflin in Barcelona in 2008:

Following this scene he has a series of mysterious encounters with a figure who reappears throughout the story in many guises (all sung by the same person). Under his influence, Aschenbach decides to journey to Venice for rest and renewal. Here is the scene in which he arrives in Venice, preceded by the “Venice overture”. The gondolier is the same mysterious figure he saw before.

From there the opera winds its slow way downstream. Aschenbach encounters Tadzio, is overcome with feeling, and has long discussions with himself about the experience (and it must be said that Death in Venice is an unusually wordy opera). In the second half, he learns that cholera has come to Venice, causing many foreigners to flee. Aschenbach decides to go, but changes his mind when he remembers that it would mean leaving Tadzio. Eventually, of course, he himself falls ill. Hence the title.

Here is an excerpt taken from near the end of the opera, in which Aschenbach, his strength now failing, reflects once again on the troubling connections between beauty, passion, and “the wisdom poets crave”. Britten has supplied a haunting musical line, hinging upon a repeated figure with each occurrence of the name ‘Phaedrus’. Here again is Hans Schöpflin. The text, which is a little difficult to understand, I have attached below the clip:

Socrates knew, Socrates told us. Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus? Yes, but through the senses. Can poets take this way then? For senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, passion leads to knowledge, knowledge to forgiveness, to compassion with the abyss. Should we then reject it, Phaedrus, the wisdom poets crave, seeking only form and pure detachment, simplicity and discipline? But this is beauty, Phaedrus, Discovered through the senses, and senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, and passion to the abyss. And now Phaedrus, I will go. But you stay here, and when your eyes no longer see me, then you go too.

I cannot find any other excerpts of sufficiently good quality to post here, so this will have to do. I suppose that, on balance, I have been slightly disappointed by this opera. The theme, of the power of beauty, is one that actually means a great deal to me, and I count myself an admirer of Mann’s original story, but its operatic realization is a little too thorny, and perhaps too slow, to have won my affection.

Happy birthday, Benjamin Britten

November 22, 2013

As I remarked yesterday, today is Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday. It is also, of course, the Feast of St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians. Let’s celebrate them both with Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia; the poetry is by Auden.

Favourite Benjamin Britten recordings

November 21, 2013

Tomorrow will be the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, and to mark the occasion I thought it would be enjoyable to highlight a few of my favourite recordings of his music. The selection criteria for this list are vague, but basically I am thinking of a combination of great music wedded to superior performances and recording technique.

It so happens that all of the recordings I have chosen are of choral or vocal music. Britten did write music for instruments alone, and some of that music — his cello suites, for instance, or his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — is excellent, but it is fair to say that music for voices is at the center of his art, so the lopsidedness of my favourites is not too misleading. I suppose I should have included some opera.

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Britten-War-Requiem-2-Decca-setWar Requiem
Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
London Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Britten
[Decca] (Recorded 1963)

The War Requiem is one of Britten’s undoubted masterpieces. It was written to celebrate the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral following its reconstruction after the Second World War. The piece interleaves the Latin texts of the Requiem Mass with the wartime poetry of Wilfrid Owen, a young English poet who had been killed in the trenches of World War I. The result is a powerful work that honours the memory of those who died while also making a strong pacifist statement. (Britten was himself a conscientious objector who spent most of World War II in America.) It is interesting that the three principal solo parts, for soprano, tenor, and baritone, were written for Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German); although that trio was not actually able to give the premiere performance, they are the three soloists on this splendid recording, in which Britten himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. This recording is not perfect — the sound is sometimes a bit wooly, and the balances are sometimes inconsistent — but it has a palpable sense of occasion about it and an intensity of purpose that subsequent recordings have not been able to match. [Listen to excerpts]

The Red Cockatoo, and other songsbritten-red-cockatoo
Ian Bostridge, Graham Johnson
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1995)

Britten wrote most of his music for tenor voice specifically for his partner Peter Pears, and Pears made many recordings which, by the very nature of the case, enjoy a rare authority, and, for some listeners, put other singers at a disadvantage in this repertoire. But I am one of those who have never warmed to Pears’ distinctive timbre, and to my mind it is Ian Bostridge, the young English tenor, who is the greatest interpreter of Britten’s songs. Bostridge is that rarest of creatures: a singer with brains. Almost without exception, his way with Britten’s music is outstanding; in fact, there is a sense in which my admiration of Britten himself is bound up with my admiration of Bostridge, so ideally matched do they seem to be. His voice is light and agile, and he delivers these wonderful songs with clear articulation and attention to detail. At the center of the programme of this disc are the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which are rarely heard but rank with Britten’s finest work. They are supplemented by a variety of shorter pieces, setting poetry of Auden and Blake, among others, and it is all superbly done, with ideal accompaniment from Graham Johnson at the piano.

Britten_nicolasSt. Nicolas, and other works
Philip Langridge, Tallis Chamber Choir
English Chamber Orchestra, Steuart Bedford
[Naxos] (Recorded 1996)

Britten wrote a great deal of music for Christmas, and although his church cantata St. Nicolas is probably a fairly minor work in his canon, this recording of the piece is so wonderful that it earns a place on my list. The piece was written in 1948, and was one of many which Britten wrote for amateur performers (although the tenor part in St. Nicolas is for a professional). The St. Nicolas whose life is rehearsed over the course of the cantata is not the jolly “St. Nick” who now dominates the Christmas season, but the historical figure, Bishop of Myra, filtered through the conventions of early Christian hagiography. Nicolas springs from his mother’s womb early in the piece with a triumphant shout of “God be glorified!”, and the music continues from there, portraying his life of charity, his journey to Palestine, his appointment as bishop, his miracles, and his death (“I bless Thy name, who lived and died for me, and, dying, yield my soul to Thee.”). The piece is a rare union of substantive piety and good humour, with a score that crackles with lively energy. In this recording, which is very atmospheric and brings the listener right into the performance space, the part of the narrator is superbly sung by Philip Langridge, and Steuart Bedford, who knew and worked with Britten, leads the polished (but not too polished) forces in what makes for a treasurable recording.

Listen to ‘The Birth of Nicolas’:

A Ceremony of Carols, and other worksbritten-ceremony
Westminster Cathedral Choir, David Hill
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1993)

A Ceremony of Carols may be Britten’s most popular collection of Christmas music, and this is a great recording of it. Britten wrote it in 1942 as he was crossing the Atlantic, returning home from America. I don’t know what time of year he made the crossing, but the music gives every impression of having been written in the soft glow of candles, at the foot of a Christmas tree, beside a creche, with a wreath of mistletoe and a glass of hot cider on the table. It has that special Christmas quality: both hushed and joyous at once. The piece is written for treble choir and harp, which gives an idea of its intimate scale. It consists of ten or so short carols to Middle English texts, framed by a processional and recessional based on the Gregorian proper “Hodie, Christus natus est”. This recording, made at Westminster Cathedral with the boys’ choir, nicely captures the spatial aspect of the performance, as the choir enters at the beginning and departs at the end, but it is the singing in the meantime that really stands out. There is an excitement and enthusiasm in the sound, as though this choir of angels is bursting at the seams for sheer joyous exuberance, and there is an unusually vivid immediacy in the recorded sound. I come back to this recording every Christmas, and my admiration for it never fails. Also on the programme are a number of shorter works, including a very fine rendition of Britten’s early masterpiece A Hymn to the Virgin, which I occasionally try to sing to my children at bedtime (though I am invariably interrupted by earnest petitions that I stop).

Listen to the first few minutes:

britten-serenadeSerenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Ian Bostridge, Radek Baborak
Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle
[EMI] (Recorded 2005)

The Serenade is another of Britten’s chief masterpieces. It is a song-cycle, about 25 minutes in duration, setting a variety of  texts on nocturnal themes by the likes of Jonson, Keats, Blake, and Tennyson, though the most harrowing section is based on an anonymous medieval lyric (“Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte, And Christe receive thy saule.”) As indicated by the title, there are two soloists: a tenor and a horn, and the combination, though unusual, very effectively evokes the intimate, reflective, and somewhat forlorn quality of the poetry. I have a half-dozen recordings of the piece in my collection, and this one with Ian Bostridge (who has himself recorded it several times) as soloist and Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic is my favourite: the recorded sound is muscular and detailed, and the singing is terrific. The disc is filled out by two other of Britten’s major song-cycles in Les Illuminations and Nocturne. [Listen to excerpts]

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Anyone else care to recommend a favourite recording of Britten’s music? Or just a favourite piece?

Great moments in opera: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 5, 2013

Part of the fun of revisiting Britten’s operas this anniversary year has been to see whether my previous opinions — sometimes formed on slight acquaintance — are confirmed or upended. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was disappointed to be disappointed by The Turn of the Screw, which I had thought I would enjoy more than I did. But then here comes Britten’s operatic setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to restore the balance: I had thought (based on a live performance I saw about ten years ago) that it was a pleasant but fairly peripheral work, but now, after spending time with a few recordings, I am close to bursting with enthusiasm. Well, at least I find it to be much better than I had remembered.

The piece had its premiere in 1960; Britten himself, with Peter Pears, adapted the piece from Shakespeare, and the libretto is fairly faithful to the beloved original, right down to individual lines. Britten does superb work providing distinctive musical backdrops for the three principal groups of characters: the fairies, the lovers, and the rustics. If I am not mistaken, this was Britten’s only operatic comedy (unless I count the early quasi-opera Paul Bunyan), and the wit comes through brilliantly, especially in the Pyramus and Thisbe section.

As the story is known to everyone, let’s move directly to some musical highlights. Sad to say, but there are only a few video clips available on YouTube; this makes my work easier, but I am not convinced these slim pickings will really allow me to convey the charm of the piece.

Here are the opening few minutes, in which a chorus of fairies sings the famous “Over hill, over dale” lines. The intonation of these young fairies is not all that it might be, but the only other clip I can find is worse. The mercurial quality of the fairy music comes through well:

A little further along in Act I we are introduced to Oberon, whose part is, most unusually, written for a countertenor voice. (Britten wrote it for Alfred Deller, who sang the premiere.) Here he sings “Welcome, wanderer” to Puck. I don’t much like the choreography here — Puck’s movement is too angular and somehow sinister — but it is unlikely that the song could be sung more beautifully (thanks to David Daniels):

Of course, the comedic high point of the opera is the rustics’ staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. It goes on for probably 15 minutes in total, but here is an excerpt which catches some of the humour. (My favourite line — “Now will I to the chink, to spy and I can hear my Thisbe’s face” — is here.) The sound quality could be better:

In the closing scene, the fairies return to the stage to sing (what is in the play) Oberon’s final speech, “Now until the break of day”. This is among Britten’s more beautiful and memorable creations, and it makes a nice finale (save Puck’s final words, which are cut from this clip):

Great moments in opera: The Turn of the Screw

September 4, 2013

Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw premiered in 1954, just one year after his ill-received Elizabethan opera Gloriana, and it is generally regarded as a return to fine form. If memory serves, it sticks closely to Henry James’ original, though the reality of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel is less doubtful in the opera than in the story.

It is a chamber opera; Britten asks for just thirteen instruments, including a piano which features prominently in the score (and, at times, in the stage action). Given this scale, the opera is suitable for light, small voices; two of the principal parts are sung by children, after all. I would imagine that it is best seen in a small hall. (I myself have not seen it live.)

From the point of view of its musical material, The Turn of the Screw is virtuosic. Britten generally resisted the allure of Schoenberg and the serialists — which is part of his attractiveness — but the music for this opera is actually based on a twelve-tone row. Britten has furthermore written the music of each scene as a variation on this row, giving the whole work a rare formal unity. Not that one — or, at least, not that I — can hear these subterranean connections.

It has been argued that a thematic thread running through many of Britten’s stage works is that of childhood innocence overcome by the evils of the world. Britten had, throughout his life, a great love for children, composing many works for them to sing and hear, and he seems to have been troubled by the fact that their gaiety and naivety should be marred by contact with the sin and disorder of the world and society. One can see this to some extent in Peter Grimes, in which Grimes’ young assistants suffer at his hands, or in Billy Budd, in which Billy — a child at heart — is entrapped by the envious malevolence of his superior officer.

In any case, the theme of corrupted innocence is certainly present — indeed, it is front and center — in The Turn of the Screw. As if to underline the point, Britten and his librettist make good use of Yeats’ lamenting line: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”. If anything could serve as a short precis of the story, that would do.

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There are few clips from this opera on YouTube, and most are of dismal quality. I did find one, and here it is: after arriving at the country house, the Governess sings of how,  having now met her two young charges, her initial anxieties have been laid to rest. No sooner does she say so than she has her first fleeting encounter with an unexpected presence in the house. The aria is sung here by Sara Hershkowitz:

All that remains on YouTube are larger, unfocused chunks of the opera; I’ll link to one such here, if only to give a better idea of what it sounds like. In this segment, chosen more or less at random, the Governess has just finished sharing with the housekeeper news of her strange encounter (above), and has learned in turn the story of Peter Quint. In this clip she returns to the children, her fears much revived. Miles sings his principal aria (on the theme “Malo”) and then Flora sings her eerie aria on the banks of the manor’s lake. This taken from a 1980s film version of the opera:

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As I watched and listened to the opera this week, I found myself pressed to make an unwelcome admission: I do not actually enjoy this opera as much as I would like to, nor even as much as I thought I did. The reasons, I think, are several. Though Britten was rarely a great melodist, the deficiency of memorable musical material here is quite severe; the vocal lines are often very angular and the harmonies often jarring. Arguably this is appropriate to the story Britten is telling, but I found it soured my experience. Could this be related to his effort to structure the music on the basis of a twelve-tone row? I don’t know.

Also, the chamber orchestra is a thin frame on which to hang the music of an opera. I once went to a student performance of Don Giovanni that was remarkably inexpensive, and when I arrived I learned why: it was being performed with piano accompaniment only! Needless to say, something was missing. Obviously the trouble I’m pointing to in Britten’s case is not as severe, but it does tend in that direction: I found myself missing the richer palette of sounds that an orchestra affords.

Finally, I am not convinced that Britten succeeded in conveying the drama of the story effectively. There is something strangely inert about it; the eerie, haunting quality of the original is muted. It is possible that this deficiency is performance-dependent: it bothered me while I was watching a film version of the opera this week, but it has not bothered me previously when I have only listened to the piece. It is hard to say. I would certainly like to have the opportunity to see The Turn of the Screw live on the stage.

Great moments in opera: Peter Grimes

May 16, 2013

In the minds of many opera lovers, Peter Grimes is held to be Benjamin Britten’s greatest opera. It follows, if the point be granted, that it is among the greatest English-language operas in the whole repertoire (of which there are precious few), and one of the finest of twentieth-century operas. I myself do not grant the original premise — in my mind, it is Billy Budd that takes the palm — but I do agree that Peter Grimes is a work of rare power and depth, with a swirling stew of dramatic themes and a characterful and muscular score.

The story is based on a poem by George Crabbe, but the characterization and dramatic thrust were considerably altered in the course of translation to the operatic stage. Grimes is a fisherman plying his trade, with the help of a young assistant, off the coast of Aldeburgh. Several of Grimes’ assistants have perished on the job in recent years, and he lives under a cloud of suspicion in the small community. In Crabbe’s original version of the story, Grimes is guilty of killing the boys, but Britten’s version is more ambiguous: Grimes is clearly unstable, and sometimes cruel, but his assistants seem to have died in — to use a phrase that appears numerous times in the libretto — “accidental circumstances”. Grimes is nonetheless an outcast, with only one person in the town, Ellen Orford, reaching out to him in friendship. The opera therefore gives Britten an opportunity to explore many themes: social stigma, madness, poverty, justice, friendship, and so on.

Let’s begin at the beginning: the opening scene is one of the most memorable in the work. We join a courtroom inquiry into the death of Grimes’ apprentice, and Grimes himself is just taking the stand. His testimony given and other evidence presented, the boy’s death is ruled accidental, but the townspeople are unconvinced. As the courtroom empties, only Ellen stays behind with Peter, and together they sing what is sometimes called (and what I believe Britten himself called) “the love duet”, though it is an odd love duet indeed. Here is the full scene (about 9 minutes), and embedded below is the “love duet” portion. I like the way it is almost entirely a capella. Note also that Peter and Ellen begin singing in different keys, but gradually converge not only to a common key, but actually to singing together. Pay special attention to the leaping interval (a ninth) when they sing together, “Your voice, out of the pain, is like a hand that I can feel.”; this interval recurs throughout the work at key moments.

For the remaining “great moments” I’ll skip to the final act. Grimes’ latest apprentice, a boy named John, has slipped from atop a wet cliff and fallen to his death, and Ellen, upon finding his sweater washed up on shore, sings a heart-breaking, and very beautiful, song which begins: “Embroidery in childhood was a luxury”. This is certainly among the loveliest moments in the opera; it is sung here by Patricia Racette.

Meanwhile, Grimes has been declining by degrees. A mob of townsfolk, upon learning of the boy’s death, are searching for him, intending harm. For a few minutes he holds the stage to deliver a “mad scene”. Mad scenes have an illustrious history in opera, though they are usually vehicles of dazzling virtuosity for sopranos. Not here: Grimes is breaking down, and the music goes with him. Again, this is largely unaccompanied singing, which has an eerie quality in an opera house.

There exists video of this part being sung by Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote the role, and so I feel a sort of obligation to link to it: done! Personally I prefer the singing of the great Jon Vickers in this role:

Ellen and an old sailor named Balstrode discover Peter. Ellen attempts to draw him in, but Balstrode instructs him to sail his boat out to sea and sink it. Much had been made of this scene, both musically (for it is the one time in the opera when dialogue is spoken rather than sung, as though to illustrate the low estate to which matters have come) and dramatically (for, if Peter is innocent of harming the boys, why should he accept an unjust death?). It is certainly chillingly effective. Here is Jon Vickers again, in a performance led by Sir Colin Davis; no video per se, but someone has taken the trouble to splice in the sections of the libretto that correspond to the music as it plays:

The clip above will actually carry us through right to the end of the opera. On the morning after Peter sails someone remarks that the coast guard reports a boat sinking off-shore, but too far out for a rescue effort, news which another character dismisses as “one of those rumours”. It brings to an end an immensely sad but humane and thought-provoking masterpiece.

Music about music

November 22, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, the patroness of music and musicians. To celebrate the day, I thought to put together an ‘audio gallery’ of music about music — that is, music that in one way or another celebrates musicians, music-making, or music itself. I drew up a preliminary list of 12 or 15 pieces, but I ran out of time before I could prepare them all. It is probably just as well.

I will proceed in chronological order, more or less, starting with something medieval. Here is Musicalis scientia / Scientia laudabili, a witty two-part motet that is a dialogue between Music and Rhetoric. Music, singing the upper part, begins by listing the names of a long string of music theorists, and then addresses Rhetoric as follows:

I wish to greet them, and observe
Their rules, entrusted to you
To use as you please
So your rhythms may not be contrary
To the rhetorical model
Or to the grammatical form.

Meanwhile (for this dialogue is really a double monologue, with both parts sung simultaneously), Rhetoric begins in this way:

To that praiseworthy science,
Venerable music,
The science of rhetoric sends greetings
With every reverence.

and then goes on to complain about music that is written for too many voices, which results in “simple things being divided”, and asks that Music provide a remedy. And Music does: the two voices of this piece come together periodically in a complex rhythmic interplay called “hocketing”, in which the voices alternate notes in a single melodic line. It is a nice example of a divided thing being made simple. As I said, it’s very witty, and it has a nice swing to it too:

Henry Purcell’s Music for a While is perhaps my personal favourite of all the pieces gathered in this post. It’s a beautiful, melancholy song about the enchanting power of music, written as incidental music for a play.  My favourite performance of the song is this one, by Alfred Deller.

Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile.
Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d
And disdaining to be pleas’d
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.

Schubert’s song An die Musik is another favourite, a lovely tribute to the consolation music brings.  Here it is sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with Gerald Moore at the piano, from a 1961 broadcast. A translation of the text is as follows:

To Music

Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!

Vaughan Williams wrote several pieces about music.  His Serenade to Music, written for a group of 16 soloists, sets the passage about music from Act V of The Merchant of Venice.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Here is the closing section, beginning at “Music! hark!”, in a performance led by Sir Adrian Boult.  This video very helpfully includes subtitles:

(The earlier part of the piece can be heard here.)

Benjamin Britten (whose birthday is today, incidentally) also wrote a number of pieces that could have qualified for inclusion in this post. I am selecting a portion of his Rejoice in the Lamb, a setting of the strange and wonderful poetry of Christopher Smart. In this section a group of musical instruments are summoned to the praise of God, and then we hear of the “magnitude and melody” of God’s own harp, which brings peace to the living and the dead.

For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.
For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound and the like.

For the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence
And so are all the instruments in Heav’n.
For God the Father Almighty plays upon the harp
Of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

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I wanted to include some popular music in this post as well, but I have had a very difficult time coming up with anything. My wife, whose tastes in music are almost orthogonal to my own, thought of this song by Natasha Bedingfield, which is about how hard it is to write a song. That’s witty enough for me to overlook the drum loops:

The only other popular song I could think of is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. I love this song. In each stanza a different part of nature — the wind, the rain, the river — serenades the weary traveller with a music that surpasses all art. Come to think of it, this song would make a decent lullaby:

Lay down your weary tune
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

If you can think of anything else that could have been included in this post (I can), please leave a comment.